Even the best ones make mistakes: Biggest marketing fails by major brands

When marketing your business effectively, creativity is crucial, but it’s essential to consider the limits of creativity. Crafting impactful marketing campaigns involves thinking about how your execution and messaging will be precepted by your audience.

While these campaigns may not always achieve their goals, they leave a memorable impression that lasts for years. Companies allocate budgets for top-tier ad campaign creators, aiming to inspire consumer spending. However, these endeavors can occasionally backfire, with some setbacks being recoverable while others jeopardize a brand. Despite extensive preparation, certain campaigns still fail to connect, whether due to misinterpretation, insensitive tones, or viral mishaps.

Learning from these mistakes, here are cringe-worthy failures by major brands and the lessons they offer to avoid similar pitfalls.


In 2017, McDonald’s introduced a commercial featuring a young boy seeking common ground with his deceased father. The ad concluded with the boy’s contentment upon discovering his father’s shared fondness for a particular burger. However, the advertisement faced substantial backlash, being labeled distressing. McDonald’s was accused of capitalizing on children’s sorrow and distress for the sake of promoting food. Following this, McDonald’s issued an apology, clarifying that their intent had not been to exploit emotions. Instead, their goal was to emphasize the role McDonald’s plays in customers’ lives, encompassing both positive and challenging moments.


This particular Sony advertisement was broadcasted in 2006 to promote the white version of Sony’s Playstation Portable device. Sony made the decision to market the new product using a rather questionable approach. In the prominent advertisement, a fair-skinned woman with white hair is depicted holding onto the face of a black woman. The white character’s expression appears to be a mix of distress and determination, while the black character assumes a notably submissive stance. The accompanying text states: “Playstation Portable. White is Coming.” There were undoubtedly more effective ways to promote the launch of the new product. Sony was quoted as explaining, “The images utilized in the campaign were solely intended to emphasize the contrast between the different colors available for the PSP.”


Burger King initiated a smartphone campaign enabling users to access their menu and ingredient details through smart devices, utilizing Wikipedia as the platform. While the campaign’s concept itself wasn’t problematic, an unfortunate incident occurred when an individual exploited the system. This person modified ingredient names, incorporating toxic elements like cyanide. Consequently, widespread alarm ensued overnight. The outcome was the discontinuation of what could have been an inventive marketing avenue, as the company was compelled to shut it down.


In April 2015, every bottle of Bud Light Beer that hit the market featured a label with a specific tagline: “The ideal beer for eliminating the word ‘NO’ from your vocabulary for the night # up for whatever.” This campaign sparked controversy, as many individuals perceived it as endorsing a culture that trivializes consent and disregards its significance. The advertisement was widely criticized for its potential promotion of behaviors associated with sexual misconduct. The messaging undoubtedly raised concerns among the public about its implications, which led to the conclusion that the campaign was, indeed, misleading and inappropriate.


In 2017, a television advertisement was broadcasted to promote secondhand Audi vehicles. The slogan employed was “Critical choices require thorough consideration.” The advertisement opens with a wedding setting, featuring an elderly woman hurrying to the wedding altar where her son is in the midst of marrying. The woman proceeds to scrutinize the bride’s facial features, ears, teeth, and other physical attributes, concluding with a gesture of approval. This marketing campaign drew substantial backlash due to its perceived objectification of women.


In January 2020, Aldi’s UK team launched the “Poorest Day Challenge” campaign. They challenged a London-based influencer to shop for groceries at Aldi on a £25 budget for her family of four. However, this strategy was met with strong backlash. The campaign aimed to showcase that affordable family meals were attainable at Aldi. Yet, it faced criticism from the outset due to its title, #PoorestDayChallenge, which many found insensitive. Hiring an influencer for the challenge also drew negative attention. The campaign’s core failure was in depicting real-life situations insensitively, leading some to believe it was mocking those in genuine poverty. This campaign was widely seen as misguided.


In 2017, Dove found itself embroiled in controversy once again due to a Facebook advertisement. The ad featured a sequence of four panels: initially showing a black woman wearing a dark-colored T-shirt in the first two panels. Subsequently, as the woman removed her T-shirt, a white woman in a light-colored T-shirt was revealed in the third panel. The ad took the form of a GIF, showcasing three different women. The final panel unveiled the woman from the beginning who had removed her T-shirt. According to the company, the intention behind the ad was to convey “the diversity of beauty.” However, the advertisement faced severe criticism for its perceived racial insensitivity. Following the backlash, Dove removed the ad and issued an apology on Facebook.


A marketing failure doesn’t always mean a financial loss. Calvin Klein demonstrated this twice with his “sex sells” campaign. First, in 1995, they took photos of teenagers in suggestive poses wearing minimal clothing, which upset parents but intrigued kids. Then, in 1999, they featured even younger boys in just boxer briefs and shorts, leading to a backlash resembling child pornography. The public disliked this move, and the ads were removed within a day.


Photo: Andrea Piacquadio