When it comes to bad advertising, annoying your audience is one thing, but causing offence can be detrimental past the point of recovery especially as a small brand or start-up.
You might have the right product, but what if you have the wrong target audience? Or worse, create something that excludes and insults various audiences? Agencies and content producers are full of ideas, but even with all the market research and customer insight in the world, there can still be moments when the target is hopelessly missed.
As a small business, ensuring your brand has a positive reputation is key to success and growth but, thanks to the internet and social media, marketing and advertising fails are widely publicised. However, this doesn’t mean businesses falling short of the mark in their campaigns is a new phenomenon.
We’ve taken a look at some of the biggest marketing and advertising fails across a range of industries over the last two decades and the lessons marketing and advertising agencies can learn from them.
When Pepsi lost the plot
There are plenty of cringe-worthy ads in the ether, but what’s more interesting is when big name businesses and brands manage to miss the mark, despite their deep pockets and (presumably) all that agency genius at their fingertips. Cue Kendall Jenner and her peacemaking can of Pepsi…
The model escapes her oppressively boring photo shoot after meeting the eyes of a handsome, male protester – is this sexual tension or social tension? Removing her platinum blonde wig, she decides to join him and other young people in a march for their rights (or love, or good hair, or something). Mid-protest, when it looks like everything might get a tad fraught, Kendall makes a vacant/smug facial expression and hands over a nice, cold can of original Pepsi to a police officer… problem solved!
Needless to say, the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad received immense criticism for oversimplifying the act of protest, and dismissing the risks and complexities of social and political unrest. It also undermined and patronised protestors and general audiences, not to mention the fact that the protest in the story was lacking a cause. The ad appeared particularly insensitive against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The audience’s disdain caused the advert to go viral on social media with people writing comments such as “total exploitative brand social activism BS” on Twitter. The overwhelming disapproval prompted Pepsi to pull the ad and respond with a tweet: “Clearly we missed the mark and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content…”
Lesson: Kendall Jenner might be the face of the moment, and potentially one of the faces of the decade, but even the most sparkly of celebrity endorsements can’t turn around an offensive and badly thought through campaign.
Body shaming on the daily commute
Protein World’s ‘Are you beach body ready?’ advert from 2015 caused international uproar with its sexualised image of a woman in a bikini and body shaming message.
London’s underground commuters fought back against the sexist and oppressive campaign with punchy and witty one liners and graffiti to deface the imagery. This grassroots protest was matched by New York’s subway passengers when Protein World gave the ad a second chance across the pond, despite its failure in the UK market. American and British audiences unite!
Lesson: Test and learn doesn’t work if you don’t learn anything from your first foray. The phrase ‘if at first you don’t succeed try, try and try again’ won’t work if you don’t change the message and objective of a campaign that has already been widely criticised.
Cars that lack drive and direction
It’s tough when you so desperately want to be cool, but you discover you’re actually dull and boring. This is exemplified surprisingly often in the automotive industry.
The 1995-2005 Mazda Bongo Friendee was marketed to young people; the name was supposed to ignite a theme of music and fun with friends, forcing itself on the youth culture as the van that would let you have good times. The name clearly retains the whiff of the final exhausting hours of a failed brainstorm when everyone’s out of ideas and the one that nobody really liked, but nobody actually vetoed, gets up. Meanwhile, the car went on to become a handy low budget model for the grey pound market and popular with busy parents on the school run.
Another example of marketing misadventure from the 1990s is the Ford Probe – the name for an aerodynamic coupé that was supposed to evoke technological advancements, but the cynical Brits just found laughable.
Success can occur in unexpected markets, however. For example, for years Honda tried to market models such as the Jazz and the HR-V known as the ‘Joy Machine’ to younger drivers, only to find that the grey pound was once again providing the most revenue due to the car’s reliability, spaciousness and ruddy good engines.
Lesson: Customer research should always be common-sense-checked. Surely only surfers or a certain type of outdoorsy yoof prize spaciousness in their first car?
So, what else have we learnt?
Controversy can be cool and spark interest and engagement, but not if it’s insensitive and ill considered. And, obviously, the naming of a product remains one of the most crucial decisions in the marketing process. When planning a new campaign or advert for your small business, create a check-list of do’s and don’ts to guarantee your image and reputation is upheld.
All of the advertising hiccups above could have been avoided with more genuine understanding of the target audience and a bit more testing. We know this cynical world can be hard to please, but when a brand hits an advertising bullseye, the viral advert kudos is immortalised forever.
Claire Wilson is content strategy director at Stratton Craig