20 Commercials That Caused Major Controversies

20 Commercials That Caused Major Controversies

Advertisers are always looking for the next “Wazzup!” style success. But unlike Geico insurance, making commercials isn’t easy, and cavemen cannot do it alone. In fact, companies worth billions of dollars, with top tier-marketing teams, often make absolutely terrible commercials! And they’re not just bad, they’re pretty offensive. While these companies thought they were taking risks, their ads were more offensive than edgy. The backlash was so severe that they had to be taken off the air.

Tango: Orangeman

The U.K. soft drink company employed the Orangemen character to show the power of their fruit flavors. In a sports play-by-play recap, the character enters undetected and slaps the drinker on both sides of their face. Soon enough, school kids mimicked the slaps, causing several injuries and public outrage.

The Hall of Advertising / YouTube

Edeka: Christmas Commercial

German grocery chain Edeka toyed with guilt in their ad about a lonely grandpa whose family cancels their Christmas plans. Then, it shifts to a montage of relatives grieving his death, but surprise! Grandpa faked his death! Critics felt using elder loneliness as a sales tactic was inappropriate.

WIACZO / YouTube

Desigual: Mother’s Day

For the matriarchal holiday, the Spanish clothing company released a provocative ad with a confusing message. In it, a woman admires her outfit in a mirror, then stuffs a pillow in her dress to create a baby bump. Before she leaves, she pokes holes in several condoms.

b/60 / YouTube

Apple: Lemmings

Back in 1984, Apple released a bleak ad of suited, blindfolded, whistling workers slowly marching off a cliff. It’s punctuated by a voice-over announcing the release of their computers as another option. Funnily enough, they didn’t release the Macintosh for three more years.

Macheadz / YouTube

GoDaddy: Lost Puppy

Known for their edgy ads, this tale of a lost puppy finding his way back home caused an uproar among pet-lovers. Just when the puppy reaches his owner’s arms, she says, “I’m so glad you made it home … because I just sold you on this website I built with GoDaddy!”

Marksebiz / YouTube

McDonald’s: Mac Tonight

A crooning piano player character was created to appeal to adult childless customers. However, there was the small complication that the moon-head’s song was pretty obviously copycatting the Bobby Darin song “Mack the Knife.” Darin’s estate sued the fast-food chain and Mac was shelved.

OffbeatFrontier / YouTube

Hyundai: Pipe Job

For some reason, Hyundai thought using a scene of a man attempting suicide would really sell their cars. Shockingly, it didn’t! They were trying to illustrate the 100% hydrogen-powered ix35, by showcasing how non-toxic the fumes when the man’s attempt failed.

Adsoftheworldvideos / YouTube

Jeno’s Frozen Pizza: Film Noir

This ad begins with drama! A man bursts into a room, surprising a woman inside. Then, he aggressively questions her like a detective and slaps her in the arm with the frozen pizza box. Playful violence was totally cool in the ’60s!

Chuckcollins / YouTube

Coca-Cola: America the Beautiful

While this one wasn’t stricken from the air, it caused massive controversy. The Super Bowl ad featured a diverse array of Americans singing the classic patriotic song in several languages. In response, there was an outpouring of xenophobia that made it a top trending topic for days.

YouTube / YouTube

Pepsi: Live For Now

Kendall Jenner really stepped in it with this one. The Pepsi ad heard round the world showed how a can of Pepsi offered to a police officer during a protest is essentially the great unifier. It was actually an enormous divider, criticized for making light of serious issues.

Yash Yadav / YouTube

National Airlines: Fly Me

The culture around flight attendants has drastically changed. In the 1970s, National Airlines ran suggestive commercials featuring attractive women saying things like “I’m (insert name). Fly me!” or “Take me, I’m yours!” These would certainly not fly today!

Ultra Swank / YouTube

Chevrolet: Bear Commercial

Aluminum or steel? That’s the question Chevrolet posed in their ethically dubious commercial to “real people.” Confronted with one cage made of steel, one of aluminum, they were forced to choose quickly between the two when they released a Grizzly bear and had to run for cover.

John Elway Chevrolet / YouTube

Groupon: Save The Money – Tibet

In the widely criticized Super Bowl commercial, actor Timothy Hutton narrated the struggles facing the people of Tibet, then abruptly switched gears, saying, but they still serve delicious food! It’s revealed that Hutton’s eating at a Tibetan restaurant where he used a Groupon. 

sportsmetro / YouTube

HomeAway: Test Baby

In 2011, vacation rental company HomeAway aired a Super Bowl commercial that disturbed many. It featured a tour of a hotel simulator factory, where a family in a cramped room accidentally catapults a fake baby into a window. Even though the child was clearly not real, people weren’t having it!

YouTube / Deal Planet

Carl’s Jr.: Au Naturel

In a cheeky ad for all-natural beef burgers, the fast-food chain had model Charlotte McKinney appear nude — going au naturel. It wasn’t necessarily the naked illusion that upset viewers, it was the men reacting to her by groping fruit, and the direct comparison of women to meat.

YouTube / Cl!ps

Nationwide: Boy

In one of the most bummer ads of all time, Nationwide had a little boy narrate the audience through all the wonderful things he could never do, as he later reveals because he died in a preventable accident. The insurance company claimed its goal was “to start a conversation, not sell insurance.”

YouTube / USA Today Sports

Skittles: Mother’s Day

Taste the rainbow was never so odd, as this commercial of a mother feeding her adult son Skittles through an umbilical cord. The creepiness of the situation and two characters disturbed viewers so much that Wrigley was forced to remove it from YouTube.

Suburban Wasteland / YouTube

Miracle Mattress: Twin Tower Sale

You don’t need to know much about this one to see why people were upset. Using the tragedy of 9/11 for advertisement and profit was a huge mistake for this Texas-based mattress company. They quickly closed their business.

WTHR 13

Luvs: Poop, There It Is

The diaper company commercial of babies filling their pants to extreme levels in front of a whooping crowd and panel of judges was voted the worst ad of 2011. People didn’t take kindly to the poopy pants reality competition spoof.

Digital Mom Blog / YouTube

Dirt Devil: Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire’s image was used by the vacuum maker when they digitally added their products into scenes of his performances as props. Some questioned the ethics of the ad, as Astaire died ten years before. While his widow gave approval, the dancer’s daughter called it a deal with the devil.

jeremiah johnson / YouTube

Hoover: Ad Campaigns

Similarly, Hoover vacuum company ran a disastrous campaign featuring airplanes. In 1992, in order to sell off a product surplus, Hoover’s U.K. division began a promotion offering two round-trip tickets to the U.S. with any purchase of £100 or more.

Financial Disaster

But intercontinental flights cost far more than £100, a fact Hoover forgot. The company lost £48 million on the promotion. The financial hit was so bad that their entire U.K. operation had to be bought out by an Italian manufacturer.

Hoover

SunnyCo: Clothing

What happened to SunnyCo Clothing? In early 2017, the fledgling swimsuit company ran an Instagram promotion, promising a free red swimsuit to anyone who re-posted an image and tagged the company. “Just pay shipping,” they said — but it was SunnyCo who ended up having to pay.

SunnyCo Clothing

Too Much Attention

Within a day, the image had been reposted thousands of times. With so many orders, SunnyCo took months to make good on their promise, and sustained massive financial damages in refunds to angry shoppers. The company barely survived and has kept a low profile ever since.

Barnes & Noble

At least SunnyCo didn’t do anything offensive to promote their products. In February 2020, Barnes & Noble tried to honor Black History Month by taking novels by white authors and redesigning the covers to cast black characters…and immediately received backlash.

TBWA\Chiat\Day

Fake Diversity

The internet lit up about it, and the bookstore’s move was universally labeled as “fake diversity” by both readers and authors. “It is not sincere or a solution,” said Bitni series author Dr. Nnedi Okorafor, below. Barnes & Noble canceled the campaign, but not before the damage was done.

WikiCommons

World Wildlife Fund

In 2009, the World Wildlife Fund made light of national tragedy by comparing a tsunami in Asia to the 9/11 attack. They produced an ad representing the tsunami’s catastrophic death toll as hundreds of planes flying toward the World Trade Center.

Wikimedia Commons / David Rydevik

Overly Edgy

Even though the ad only ran once in Brazil, the WWF suffered a serious blow. The worst part was that the ad was intended to be offensive: the agency did it on purpose, hoping it would win big awards for its boldness.

World Wildlife Fund

Just For Feet

The 1999 shoe company Just For Feet committed a racial blunder, too. They spent $2.9 million on a Super Bowl commercial in which a Kenyan runner fled, barefoot, from white troops, who tracked him down in a Hummer, drugged his water, and put Just For Feet sneakers on him.

Just For Feet

Going Bankrupt

The ad crashed and burned, alongside of its many problematic implications, and the company burned along with it. Just For Feet tried to sue Saatchi & Saatchi, its ad agency, but abandoned the suit and filed for bankruptcy.

Just For Feet

Holiday Inn

It’s a good idea to steer clear of making any offensive statements in ads at all, but no one told Holiday Inn. In 1997, the chain ran a commercial, promoting improvements to their hotels in excess of $1 billion.

Holiday Inn

Tone Deaf

The commercial tried to show how far Holiday Inn’s dollars would stretch by showing a woman who’d had cosmetic work done, and announcing what each surgery cost. The woman also happened to be transgender, to the horror of her onscreen classmate. Amid justified backlash, the ad was pulled.

Holiday Inn

Coca-Cola

Well-established companies aren’t immune to marketing fails, either. Coca-Cola spent $4 million on a 1990 promotion where they placed actual paper cash, anywhere from $1 to $500, inside brand new “MagiCans” of soda.

Coca-Cola

Wet Dollar Bills

Besides the obvious gross factor of having dirty, damp money inside your Coke, the cashless decoy cans became a problem, too, after weighted compartments inside leaked chlorine and ammonium sulfate into the Coke. The promotion was cut short, and only 120,000 cans were ever sold.

Coca-Cola

Peloton

Another body-unfriendly ad was the viral Peloton campaign. Launched in December 2019, this commercial featured a woman whose husband gifts her a Peloton stationary bike for the holiday. The woman, already fit, spends hours biking away, but the expression on her face looks terrified rather than delighted.

Peloton

Funny Response

The ad was called “sexist and dystopian,” and Peloton’s stock dropped 9%. Some humor came of it, though: just days after the ad aired, Aviation Gin released a commercial with the same Peloton actress, drinking her exercise sorrows away with a smooth beverage.

Aviation Gin / The Gift That Doesn’t Give Back

Chevrolet

Internet memes can bring down the mightiest of corporations, and in 2006, even Chevrolet was not immune. They ran a campaign allowing audiences to create Tahoe ads using Chevy-provided footage; users could write their own captions over the video.

YouTube / Dan Katz

Too Much Creativity

The internet loved it. The DIY ads went viral, and instead of promoting the Tahoe, the captions were laden with profanity, called Chevy out for being environmentally unfriendly, or just took on an internet-typical gory tone. Chevy rode it out for a few days, but then axed the campaign.

YouTube / wonderweasel

Winston Cigarettes

The 1960s were a different time. Smoking was an openly accepted habit that most people indulged in. So, when Winston cigarettes used the images of beloved cartoon characters puffing away, it was less scandalous.

Winston Cigarettes

Going Extinct

Today this commercial is concerning because of the message it sends children. Particularly when at the end of the spot, Fred Flintstone himself jauntily sings the company slogan between drags on a cigarette, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should!”

Winston Cigarettes

McDonald’s

During the 1970s, everyone’s favorite fast food chain launched a series of commercials set in the fanciful “McDondonald.” It made waves, as they were sued for copying the popular T.V. show H.R. Pufnstuf.

McDonald’s

Another problem was the alleged false advertising in these commercials. In this magical world, burgers grew out of the ground like heads of lettuce. People believed that this misrepresented the harsh realities of the animal industrial complex while conflating burgers with vegetables.

McDonald’s

Fritos

Bandito was the Frito chip mascot in the ’60s and ’70s. His obvious stereotype outraged many members of the Mexican community, especially because of his quick temper and constant possession of firearms.

Frito Lay

Interestingly, the community was divided as some people approved of the caricature. This allowed the bandito to inhabit American T.V. screens for awhile. They ended up cleaning up his image slightly, but kept on with the basic idea of him for years.

Frito Lay

McDonald’s

The burger chain made the list again with a 2017 misstep that aired in the U.K. The commercial follows a mother explaining to her son what his deceased father was like. The boy sadly notes how different he is from his father.

McDonald’s

They head to McDonald’s, and the boy orders the Filet-O-Fish when the mother says that sandwich was also his father’s favorite order. The boy smiles, realizing he is like his father after all. People accused McDonald’s of using grief to sell fast food.

McDonald’s