Bad advertising are annoying, repetitive, try too hard to be funny, don’t try hard enough to be interesting, and get in the way of whatever movie you’re watching. But some bad ads go well below and beyond even that dismal expectations most people have for commercials, and get pulled from websites and airwaves. These ads are so offensive that they make you wonder how they got made in the first place.
10. Kylie Jenner Pepsi Ad
To all ad creatives, ad executives, CMOs, and in-house marketing teams: we understand you believe in your product and want to share the good news with the world. But let’s be realistic here – new deodorant isn’t going to have women chasing after dorks like a pack of wolves, and a can of soda isn’t going to patch over centuries or historical pain and racial violence. At least the deodorant ads are in on the joke. We can’t say the same for Pepsi.
In 2017, the soda company released an ad in which self made but not actually self made billionaire Kylie Jenner, of Kardashian-Jenner fame, instantly solved racial tensions by inviting both riot police and Black Lives Matter protesters to share a can of Pepsi. This led to peace and understanding in the world of the spot and the exact opposite of that in the actual world. Many felt the ad insultingly trivialized serious social justice movements and protests, particularly those advocating against police violence. In response to the criticism, Pepsi apologized and removed the advertisement, admitting that they missed the mark. Yeah, you think?
9. McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish Ad
Pop quiz. An ad begins with a grieving boy asking his mom for stories about his dead father – specifically things they had in common – as a way of holding onto something, anything, that can serve as a connection to the most important man he’ll never meet. Powerful stuff. What’s it an ad for? Life insurance? Grief therapy? Some kind of charity?
Nope! It’s a real ad for a Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s. We’re not kidding. Learning that he shared the same dollar menu preferences as his dead dad was apparently enough to warm the kid’s heart even though his father won’t be around to see him grow up. If only it were that easy. Unsurprisingly, McDonalds UK yanked the spot after much public outrage, and admitted they had dropped the ball by using such a serious topic to sell fish sandwiches.
It’s one of those moments that makes you think, “how did nobody involved in this recognize how bad it was until it was too late?”
8. Hyundai’s Pipe-Job Ad
Selling cars with 100% hydro emissions is arguably a net positive for the environment and therefore humanity. Selling cars with 100% hydro emissions by making a crass suicide joke is most certainly not good for anyone. But that’s what Hyundai did in 2013, with a commercial in which a man tries to pump car exhaust into his parked vehicle with him inside only to wake up alive and well hydrated.
Think of all the better ways they could’ve done this ad. Think of the comedy of errors that led to multiple people greenlighting this idea. Think of the outrage of people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide. Think of the embarrassment of all the higher ups when they had to pull the ad, apologizing for its outrageous and irresponsible story. Lastly, think of how unbelievable it is that Hyundai tried to wash their hands clean of the spot and dump all the blame on the ad agency that made it. Sure, there’s blame to go around. But commercials don’t get produced unless the client signs off on it, so nice try.
7. Miracle Mattress 9/11 Ad
Think up some mattress commercial ideas. A couple waking up next to each other, smiling? Testimonials from folks who no longer have back pain? Comparisons with other competitors, highlighting the benefits of your product? Talking about unmissable upcoming deals? Nothing too revolutionary so far, but also nothing nearly as bad or offensive as a 2016 commercial from Texas based mattress retailer Miracle Mattress, which features someone diving into two upright mattresses in a way deliberately designed to evoke images of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was all to promote the “Twin Towers Sale” and at the end, featured a cast member joking to the camera that “we’ll never forget.”
Come. On. This is the kind of idea junior ad agency creatives would throw around as a joke during brain storming sessions before, you know, not actually pitching it to their creative director because they would get fired. And yet it actually got made, caused predictable outrage after going viral, and forced Miracle Mattress to pull the spot and issue an apology. We hope they’re making more responsible ads now – is what we would’ve said if the controversy hadn’t forced them to close their doors.
6. Dove’s Real Beauty Ad
Dove gained a lot of capital and good will with their long-running “Real Beauty” ad campaign, which promoted realistic beauty standards, told women to be proud of themselves, and celebrated women of all sizes, races, ages, and degrees of health. It’s a wholesome, inspiring message – that was all but undone in 3 seconds with a social media spot in which a Black woman transforms into a white one as a way of promoting cleansers and body wash.
Oof. Unlike other hideously offensive ads, this one doesn’t appear to have been made in bad faith. But it’s all too easy to interpret it as saying that “our products can wash your ugly Black skin away until you’re nice and white.” It’s a great time to remind everyone that details and presentation matter, even when you had no nefarious intentions. Unsurprisingly, Dove was forced to retract the ad and issue an apology.
5. WWF’s 9/11 Ad
What is it about commercials trivializing the September 11 terrorist attacks to promote products or services? It’s a great way to get attention, but never listen to people who tell you that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Unless you’re some kind of extremist troll who loves hurting and provoking people, there absolutely is such a thing as bad publicity.
That’s what the World Wildlife Fund learned the hard way when they tried to drum up donations for the terrible 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia, by comparing its death toll to the admittedly much less deadly 9/11 attacks. But… why, though? Just because people were grief stricken and traumatized by the twin towers going down on national TV doesn’t mean they didn’t care about the tsunami victims, so choosing to guilt them over it or to even accidentally imply that you’re only allowed to care about the deadlier disaster is a strange and unwelcome strategy. Both the WWF and responsible ad agency DDB Brasil intended to submit the spot to award shows before public outrage had both scrambling to downplay their involvement.
4. Sprite’s “Brutally Refreshing” Ad
Promoting Sprite as being “brutally refreshing” is a pretty funny concept. The campaign started off on a good note, with “brutally refreshing truths” like “We all have one tight friend,” “one dip is never enough,” and “If you have to give your taxi driver directions, you’re better off walking.” But the campaign hit a penny on the rails and led to huge amounts of online criticism when it took over website JOE.ie and included the “brutally refreshing” line “she’s seen more ceilings than Michelangelo.”
Putting aside the poor logic here (isn’t Michelangelo famous for his association with one specific ceiling instead of many ceilings?) this is just an inexcusably sexist line that seemed to come entirely out of left field. It’s not even “brutally refreshing.” It’s just regular old brutal, which is probably not a word Coke-Sprite wants anyone to associate with any of their products. After causing an uproar on Twitter, the offending ad was removed and apologies were fired out. Along with, we presume, several employees.
3. Dacia’s “Most Offensive Car Commercial Ever”
Not all offensive statements have malicious motivations behind them. Sometimes good people say dumb things and are immediately remorseful in a “I am so sorry, that just slipped out!” kind of way. Or, sometimes they really did mean to say it but didn’t understand it was offensive until it was interpreted in a way that didn’t at all like up with their intentions. Or, you know, sometimes they really meant it and wanted it to anger everyone.
Such is the case with a Dacia ad that’s been described by some as “the most offensive car commercial ever.” Featuring toilet humor, sex jokes, and offensive stereotypes galore at the expense of the Roma people (of all the targets, we had to punch down at one of the most historically oppressed minorities ever?), the ad went viral and prompted huge amounts of discussion and outrage.
2. XLS Diet Pills Ad
We’re not saying diet pills and appetite suppressants are inherently bad. They have real medical value if their use is properly prescribed and overseen by medical professionals. But they’re definitely a tricky thing to market, because so many people want them for unhealthy reasons.
It goes without saying that ad creatives should drive around the “I want to be skinny and hot” approach like the plague and instead stick to approved talking points. There is, after all, a good reason that pharmaceutical advertising is so samey and boring. There just isn’t that much you’re actually allowed to say.
But apparently XLS Medical didn’t get the memo, after releasing an ad in which two young and visibly not overweight women said they wanted to use the pills to squeeze into holiday clothes. Yikes. The resulting outrage from the public and health groups alike was more predictable than the sunrise. There are too many ways this irresponsible ad falls creatively and ethically short to list.
1. 888 Online Betting Ad
Gambling is controversial for a lot of reasons. So advertising gambling services like betting website 888.com is a minefield. There’s just such a fine line between promoting fun and the possibility of winning big, and accidentally pushing reckless and irresponsible financial behavior.
But it’s not that hard to avoid some of the more obvious potential problems that nobody should even need to articulate. You know, like an ad in which a depressed man turns to online gambling as a way to cover his dying wife’s medical bills. But that’s exactly what 888.com did in 2017 – leading to an uproar, a record fine from the Gambling Commission for irresponsible advertising, and being forced to pull the spot after the Advertising Standards Authority banned it for being “socially irresponsible” and “targeting vulnerable people.” Yikes.