Top 10 Controversial Print Ads


It is estimated that we are exposed to thousands of commercial messages every day in one form or another. Most of them are boring as hell, but once in a while, a shocking ad makes us stop and wonder. ‘Shockvertising’ is like a sword with a double-edged blade. Do bold and controversial print ads incite or alienate consumers?

‘Shockvertising’ has been defined as a particular form of communication designed with the attempt to awe and shock the target audience by using taboo subjects and emotion/thought provoking words and images. The issue with shockvertising is that what one person hails as brilliantly creative another sees as offensive and vice-versa. Here are ten of the most controversial print ads:

10. Nike – St. Rooney

St Rooney

Nike launched in 2006 a highly criticized ad campaign. One of the print ads depicts England’s best football player, Wayne Rooney, with the Cross of St. George painted on his chest.

Rooney fractured the base of his 4th metatarsal before the 2006 World Cup finals, but he made a full recovery in time to play at the World Cup. Therefore, some notable British journalists claimed that Nike cynically portrayed Rooney part Woden, the Anglo-Saxon god of war, part the suffering but triumphant Christ. According to them, “Nike has exploited him almost as blatantly as it is alleged to exploit its laborers in the Third World who make its costly footwear.”

Several religious groups complained to the Advertising Standards Authority within hours of the print ad being released. They said Nike’s ad was blasphemous and offensive to Christians because it trivialized Christ’s sufferings. Nike’s spokeswoman declared that they simply wanted to celebrate Rooney’s return to Manchester United, it had nothing to do with the crucifixion. Moreover, “the red paint is not meant to be blood, it’s just echoing the body paint which fans cover themselves in,” she said.

Advertising Agency: Wieden+kennedy, United Kingdom

Creative Directors: Tony Davidson, Kim Papworth

Copywriters: Chris Groom, Stuart Harkness

9. Sisley – Fashioin Junkie


A group of advertising professionals produced in 2007 a pretty controversial ad, “Fashioin Junkie”. Although Sisley declared that the advertisement wasn’t authorized by the company and that they had nothing to do with the print ad, it remains suspicious on certain matters.

The word fashion was intentionally misspelled – fashioin – to make it rhyme a little bit with cocaine. The advertisement depicts two young women snorting cocaine. A white dress has been arranged to look like cocaine, but there’s also a white powder similar to cocaine on a  JPMorgan Chase card.

Portraying and promoting fashion addicts as drug addicts is totally inappropriate, but this is the goal of shockvertising, to blow it in our face and attract tons of attention  by any means.

Advertising Agency: Zoo Advertising, Shanghai, China

Creative Director: Alex Sean

Copywriter: Sandy Sang

8. Burger King – It’ll Blow Your Mind Away

bk ad

This suggestive Burger King ad leaves little to the imagination. Burger King ran a special promotion in Singapore for a limited edition of burgers: the Super Seven Inchers. Although it contains references to oral sex, the advertisement was not banned. Come on, let’s get real! Singapore banned the sale and import of chewing gum, but allowed the promotion of this ad? It makes one wonder how Singapore applies its censorship policies.

The “mind-blowing” Super Seven Incher, the too much white cheese and the open mouth of the wide-eyed blond woman are pretty self-explanatory. Here’s the copy of the ad:  “Fill your desire for something long, juicy and flame-grilled…It’ll blow your mind away…It just tastes better.” Only a Singaporean advertising agency would brag about seven inches…

Advertising Agency, Creative Director, Copywriter: Lauren Kuziner, a spokeswoman for Burger King, declined to identify the Singapore-based advertising agency.

7. Corporate Chhattigarh – Martyr


Chhattisgarh, the 10th largest state of India, is struggling to fight Maoist terrorism. The Communist Party of India (CPI Maoist) is a political party that continues to employ intimidation and violence to achieve both its political goals and illegal economic interests. The Left wing extremism has been declared by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the “greatest internal security threat” to India.

Ogilvy’s advertising campaign was sponsored by Corporate Chhattisgarh, a monthly corporate magazine. The shocking ad questions the faith-based terrorism and the role played by religion in rewarding and justifying it.

If faith can truly move mountains, doesn’t using RDX to massacre mere humans denote a certain lack of faith?” and “Just what if after the successful completion of your suicide bombing mission you discover God doesn’t exist?” are the messages of the other two ads of the campaign developed by Ogilvy & Mather India.  Touching, powerful copy and brilliant art direction!

Advertising Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, Bangalore, India

Creative Directors: Malvika Mehra, Amit Akali, Deepak Joshi

Copywriter: Manoj Jacob

6. United Colors of Benetton – Angel and Devil


Italian art director and photographer Oliviero Toscani is credited with having revolutionized

the way advertisers communicate and create brand exposure. He is the creative mind behind Benetton’s daring advertising campaigns. Toscani successfully gained international notoriety in the 80s and 90s with his controversial Benetton campaigns.

The Italian master of shockvertising created in 1991 unprecedented controversy with the “Angel and Devil” campaign. The ad portrays a moral conflict, symbolized by an angel – a white girl with blonde curly hair, blue eyes –  and the devil – an Afro American girl whose hair looks similar to devilish horns. The gap in the middle of the front teeth is a sign of wisdom, beauty, happiness and fertility in many parts of the world. It is called les dents du bonheur, teeth of happiness. This makes the white girl look even more innocent and angelic.

Unfortunately, society often creates and perpetuates stereotypes. Afro-Americans are often unrealistically and unfairly portrayed in the media. “All of these conflicts were based on a difference that separates rather than unites. By acknowledging these differences and prohibitions, the brand (…) made a commitment to foster the cohabitation of opposites, to break down barriers and ensure dialogue. Benetton had a plan: to integrate opposites, to unite differences under a single flag, the flag of its own logo,” stated Benetton.

Advertising Agency: Benetton’s in-house agency

Creative Director: Oliviero Toscani

Copywriter: Oliviero Toscani

5. Antonio Federici – Ice Cream Is Our Religion

Antonio Federici is an ice cream manufacturer who sparked a storm of controversy in the last years. The religious themes featured in the advertising campaigns – where Catholic priests and nuns push for more intimacy than the Holy Spirit is comfortable with – got them banned several times by UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

“Ice cream is our religion” was the slogan of the print ad campaign and the first banned ads were “Kiss temptation” and “Submit to temptation”. The ads depict a priest getting intimate with a nun. The 2010 print ad portrays a pregnant woman dressed as a nun who is enjoying her gelato italiano in a church. As the slogan states, the authentic Italian ice cream has been “Immaculately conceived”. ASA banned the advert because “it mocks the virgin birth of Jesus and the beliefs of Roman Catholics.”

The (Irish Catholic) creative director, on the other hand, said that it is a “challenging and iconoclastic piece of advertising. It tells a deeper story, the story of thousands of pregnant Irish women enslaved by the Catholic church in convents and who had their children taken away from them by nuns because they were seen as ‘moral degenerates‘”.

The advertising agency pushed the limits by launching another steamy ad showing two hot priests “‘in a seductive pose as if they were about to kiss passionately,”  ASA. “We Believe in Salivation” was the slogan of the controversial ad. All in all, who can resist the forbidden Italian temptations? 🙂

Advertising Agency: Contrast Creative, Manchester, UK

Creative Director: Matt O’ Connor

Copywriter: Matt O’ Connor

4. Lego – September 11


The controversial advert “Rebuild It”, apparently created for Lego, was released in 2006 and was credited to advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, China. The advertisement shows the reconstructed scene of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with Lego blocks.  All hell broke loose after the ad went viral. Saatchi & Saatchi, China declared that  no one inside the agency was aware of the existence of this ad and that two of their employees, Black Wu and Darren Cheung, created the ad without their permission. “We would like to sincerely apologize to the whole world for posting some fake Lego ads that aroused a series of anxiety and disgust on internet. It was our personal trial to challenge creativity,” wrote the two ex-Saatchi & Saatchi employees in a public letter.

Advertising Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi, China

Creative Director: Darren Cheung

Copywriter: Black Wu

3. Duncan Quinn

This Duncan Quinn suit ad is still considered one of the sexist and disturbing advertisements of our time. A strangled woman with a necktie is lying on a car. A man holds the necktie of the half-naked woman who is also bleeding from the head. Many people associate the male model of the ad with a cold-blooded, misogynic criminal. Others could see it in another way; this man could very good be the investigator that turned up at the scene of the crime. Evidence found at the scene of a crime can provide crucial investigative information. This would explain his satisfied facial expression. What do you think? Aren’t some individuals simply too sensitive when it comes to sexism?

Advertising Agency, Creative Director: unknown

2. Love Cosmetics – Because Innocence is Sexier Than You Think

love cosmetics

After analyzing this ad, one question pops up immediately: who is the target audience? Child molesters? The slogan of the ad, “because innocence is sexier than you think“, is very disturbing, don’t you think? It is very challenging to gracefully work abnormal interest in children into an advertising campaign…

The erotic innocence, the shape and colors of the perfume bottles and the sexualized child make it really hard for us to believe that this was once considered appropriate advertising.

Advertising Agency: Wells, Rich, Greene (WRG)

Creative Director, Copywriter: unknown

1. N.K. Fairbank Co. – Why Doesn’t Your Mamma Wash You With Fairy Soap?

fairy soap

The number one goes to one of the most offensive and racist ads I have ever seen. The vintage ad portrays a white girl with light blonde hair asking an Afro-American girl “Why doesn’t your mamma wash you with fairy soap?” The suggestion that the Afro-American’s skin looks dirty because it is darker than the white girl’s skin is obvious. The ad dates back to the 1860s. With slavery being legally abolished in 1865, it’s no wonder that African Americans weren’t treated equally by most of the advertisers of that era.

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  1. Where’s the AT&T print ad with the gorilla (on the phone) used to represent Africa in the international calling advertisements when the other countries had a human caricature to represent the country?

  2. bobhope1234 on

    “Only a Singaporean advertising agency would brag about seven inches…”
    This is incredibly racist and offensive. Shame on you.

  3. Suman-yes I see that ad from 150 years ago. Can you give us an example of modern day racism in music, movies, politics,etc?

  4. Look around ppl,racism is present almost everywhere. Be it movies,music,politics,B.S Propaganda which are created just for selfish reasons. Racism is a sensitive topic and unfortunately we,the people haven’t gone the right way in dealing with it.

  5. Aren’t some individuals simply too sensitive when it comes to sexism?

    I migth add

    Aren’t some individuals simply too sensitive when it comes to September 11 ?

  6. And in that ‘fashioin’ picture, the model on the left’s right nipple is exposed.

  7. There was one recently in Soho that was pretty huge and showed an African-American woman and it said something along the lines of “the biggest threat to an unborn baby is its mother.” They took it down right away.

  8. The in the fashion ad, the word “fashoin” is closer to “heroin,” instead of cocaine.
    Of course, nobody said that models can spell…

  9. NK Fairbanks had another racially offensive clenser product called Gold Dust with the Gold Dust Twins, “Goldie” and “Dustie”. The original (circa 1892) version of the twins was a standard drawing of two young African-American children cleaning up together in a washtub.