The memorable ad campaign is the Holy Grail for advertisers, all of whom hope to come up with their own “Got Milk?” or “Where’s the Beef?”
However, some ad campaigns become unforgettable not for their effectiveness, but for the utter lack of common sense involved in making them. These campaigns didn’t just fail to attract business; they offended viewers, generated congressional investigations and occasionally inspired criminal activity.
Click ahead to see the advertising campaigns that misfired on the companies that created them.
By Daniel Bukszpan, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 17 Feb 2011
LifeLock is an identity theft prevention company that detects fraudulent applications for credit cards, mortgages and car loans placed in their clients’ names.
LifeLock CEO Todd Davis was so confident in the company’s ability to protect sensitive information that it publicized its services with a brazen television advertisement, in which a van drives by with his real, actual social security number emblazoned on the side, all but daring criminals to use it.
A number of identity thieves not only took the dare, but used the information successfully multiple times. In two cases reported in the Phoenix New Times, a Texas man used the social security number to take out a $500 loan and another in Georgia used the CEO’s information to open an AT&T wireless account. Davis knew nothing about either instance until the collection agencies started calling him.
The God of War video game series is set in ancient Greece and features brutally violent game play. Sony decided that the promotion of God of War II should mirror the carnage, so on the eve of its March 2007 release, they held a publicity event in Athens that featured an actual, deceased goat as its centerpiece.
Gruesome photos from the event found their way into the pages of the UK’s Daily Mail, sparking outrage among animal rights groups and violent video game opponents. Sony senior director Dave Karraker issued an apology, stating, “We recognize that the use of a dead goat was in poor taste and fell below the high standards of conduct we set ourselves.”
It may be hard to fathom today, but just a few years ago, not every person on earth owned an iPod, and other companies still believed that they had a shot at snaring customers for portable mp3 players. SanDisk manufactured their own in 2006, the e200, and they went about advertising it in a unique way - by launching the “iDont” campaign, which depicted users of the iPod as conformist drones and labeled them “iSheep” and “iChimps.”
The campaign failed to capture customers for SanDisk’s product. This was in part due to the fact that the player was never mentioned or depicted in any of the advertisements. It was also likely due to a lack of eagerness on the part of iPod users to purchase the products of a company that was directly insulting them.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a popular show that airs on the Cartoon Network’s prime time programming block, Adult Swim. It’s the longest running original show in Adult Swim history, but a promotional stunt nearly sank it.
In 2007, LED displays depicting one of the show’s Mooninite characters were installed at various points in major American cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. However, in Boston, the displays were interpreted as part of a citywide bomb scare and roads all over the metropolitan area were shut down while police investigated the mysterious installations.
Turner Broadcasting ultimately paid $2 million in fines to the Boston Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security, and Jim Samples, the head of Cartoon Network for 13 years, resigned his position.
During the 2011 Super Bowl, the e-commerce site Groupon aired three advertisements. In most cases, any company airing a memorable ad during Super Bowl Sunday is guaranteed to become the subject of water cooler discussion the following Monday. This is exactly what happened to Groupon, but it wasn’t a good thing.
The company ran ads featuring famous celebrities, among them actor Timothy Hutton. His spot began with him discussing human rights abuses in Tibet, and then raving about the deals Groupon offered on fish curry at Himalayan restaurants. Scores of viewers were offended at what they felt was the trivialization of an important cause, and the backlash to the ads was severe. The company pulled the ad four days later.
When Pfizer decided to get a famous face to advertise their cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, they knew that few TV pitchmen would have more credibility than a doctor. So in 2006, they rolled out a new television advertisement starring Robert Jarvik, inventor of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart, and he instantly lent a degree of gravitas to the proceedings. "Just because I'm a doctor,” he said in the spots, “doesn't mean I don't worry about my cholesterol."
Technically, the statement was true. However, there was one small problem — Jarvik had never for a day in his life been licensed to practice medicine. In fact, he had never even completed a residency or an internship. The advertisements became the subject of a congressional investigation, in which lawmakers determined that the spots amounted to medical advice from someone who was not a practicing physician. Pfizer withdrew the ads in 2008.
On April 20, 2010, an explosion took place at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. BP operated the rig, and initially, they tried to downplay the amount of damage that had occurred. However, 100,000 barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico every day made that impossible. BP CEO Tony Hayward was chosen to try and get out in front of some of the criticism, and he filmed an advertisement in which he pledged that the company would address the damage.
Unfortunately, Hayward was not the best choice to represent the company. The advertisements came right after he had made headlines by saying of the ongoing spill, “There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back.” The advertisements were widely criticized by people across the political spectrum, including President Barack Obama, who suggested that BP might be better served by spending their money on cleanup efforts, not advertising.
In the 1990s, the Holiday Inn hotel chain decided to get with the times and undergo a billion dollar renovation. When it was finished, they chose the 1997 Super Bowl as the venue in which to brag about it. They ran a commercial that depicted two classmates at a high school reunion. One tries to place the name of the beautiful woman standing before him and after a few guesses, he figures it out --- the vision of beauty before him used to be named Bob.
The voiceover then goes on to reason that since the thousands of dollars that “Bob” had spent had been such a success, wouldn’t the same hold true for a billion-dollar hotel chain renovation? As it turned out, the answer was no. Not only did the campaign fail to renew interest in the chain, it was deemed offensive by LGBT groups, who boycotted the hotel.
In 2007, Dr. Pepper held a treasure hunt worth $10,000 in Boston. Contestants were required to find a gold coin that was hidden in Granary Burying Ground, a 17th century graveyard that serves as the final resting place of John Hancock and Paul Revere. While it was likely inadvertent, the soft drink company had basically invited pickaxe-wielding contestants to rummage through 350-year-old graves in search of the coin.
When they caught wind of the event, Boston city officials were so incensed that the company cancelled it. However, even if that hadn’t happened, it would have been impossible for contestants to enter the graveyard, since the parks department had closed it due to hazardous ice conditions. Mary Hines, a parks department representative, told the Boston Globe, "I think the fact that the gates were closed was almost like and act of god."
Spirit Airlines is a carrier that specializes in flights to such vacation getaways as the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and Florida. They had come under fire in the past for some less than tasteful advertising campaigns, such as one publicizing the “Eye of the Tiger” sale, which poked fun at a car accident involving golfer Tiger Woods that had occurred only days earlier. However, they topped themselves with a June 2010 ad campaign that referenced the still-ongoing BP oil spill.
The ad featured a a bikini-clad woman lying on a beach and glistening with suntan lotion. Above her ran the caption, "Check out the oil on our beaches: Ft. Lauderdale." Reaction to the spots was almost uniformly negative, and the campaign was characterized as tasteless and insensitive. Despite initial assertions by the airline that people had simply misunderstood the campaign, they ultimately acknowledged the backlash and discontinued the advertisements.