Remember when everyone thought society was going to collapse on New Year’s Day 2000? Good times. As far as we know, we’re all still here. But you know what did happen after Y2K? A whole lotta marketing and advertising fails. As part of the industry ourselves, we mourn along with our sisters and brothers on the front lines of catastrophic failure. But as part of the general public witnessing the dumpster fires that are corporate advertising fails, we can’t help but LOL along with the rest of the world. What can we say… it makes us feel better about ourselves. Now you can cackle along with us as we take a journey through the Biggest Marketing Fails Since Y2K.
1. Starbucks collapses into a PR nightmare — 2002
Following 9/11, the American people were very understandably sensitive to certain… well… imagery. The poster, which cropped up in April of 2002, was an advertisement for Starbucks’ new TazoCitrus drinks. However, many people were noting that the layout of the poster was reminiscent of the recent terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. And we have to admit, it does look kind of bad. The poster displays two drinks side-by-side, a dragonfly swooping down in the background, and text reading “Collapse into cool.” Yeah. And the bright, cheery whimsy of the graphic design choices didn’t really help either.
Starbucks pulled the ad in June 2002.
2. LifeLock CEO dares people to steal his identity — 2007
LifeLock CEO Todd Davis was SO SURE that his product would prevent identity theft, that he posted his very real social security number on the Internet for all to see, challenging people to steal his identity.
And, well, they did.
Ah, the hubris of man makes for some delightful entertainment.
3. Snickers and Mr. T “Get Some Nuts” — 2008
Snickers made a series of commercials featuring Mr. T in an ad campaign called “Get Some Nuts”. In these commercials, Mr. T would ride around, using various forms of heavy machinery to shoot Snickers bars at people exhibiting “timid behavior”. In one particular ad, he targets a speedwalker, shouting that he is a disgrace to man. The U.S. lobby group Human Rights Campaign criticized this ad for condoning ‘the notion that the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is a group of second class citizens and that violence against LGBT people is not only acceptable but humorous’.
Mars (the creator of Snickers bars) quickly pulled the ad after facing backlash from the community.
4. New York Times emails millions by mistake — 2011
An email marketer’s worst nightmare is accidentally sending the wrong message out to millions of people. Unfortunately for whatever poor sap was heading up the New York Times’ email campaigns in 2011, this nightmare became a reality. The email blast was only supposed to reach around 300 people, those of which had recently unsubscribed. It was a “please reconsider your unsubscription” mail, which makes it all the more awkward considering it was sent to ALL EIGHT MILLION CURRENT SUBSCRIBERS!
To make matters worse, they reported their own email as spam and then later had to renege on the statement after realizing it had come from internal sources. Oops!
5. Hyundai at the forefront of suicide prevention — 2013
Sweet mercy, this one is some PRIMO cringe. The 2013 Hyundai ad, entitled “Pipe Job,” depicts a man entering his Hyundai vehicle in his closed garage, shutting the door, and turning the car on. Yeah, we can infer where this is going. After a few grim moments of watching the man waits patiently inside the car, the scene changes to the outside of the house. It is then that we see the man emerging from the garage, alive and unharmed. Underneath, the text “The new ix35 with 100% water emissions.”
Yes, Hyundai insinuated that their new cars would prevent suicides because the emissions were so clean.
Y I K E S.
On a serious note, this advertisement is especially bad due to the fact that it has been shown that depictions of suicide actually lead to an increase in real suicides. Allegedly, the ad had been created by an affiliate advertising agency called Innocean Europe and run without Hyundai’s request or approval. Which leaves us wondering… how the F%#@ was that allowed to happen?!
6. SpaghettiOs remembers Pearl Harbor — 2013
On the 72nd anniversary of Japan’s attack on the U.S. Pearl Harbor naval base, the creator of our childhood favorite, kind of gross, preservative-laden, canned pasta tweeted this image:
The SpaghettiOs mascot, staring back at us with a smug little grin on his face as if to say “Yeah, I’m exploiting a tragic day of remembrance for corporate profit, whatcha gonna do about it?”
Twitter immediately took to roasting the ever-loving HELL out of the glib, circular noodle. In a perfect display of poetic justice, the slogan “Uh Oh SpaghettiOs” takes on a whole new meaning.
7. Bloomingdale’s says date rape is A-OK? — 2015
@SiobhanFenton on Twitter
For some reason, the department store Bloomingdales thought it was a brilliant idea to slap the phrase “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” onto an image of a man glancing creepily at a blissfully unaware woman. Bloomingdale apologized on its official Twitter account (@Bloomingdales), tweeting: “We heard your feedback about our catalog copy, which was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale’s sincerely apologizes.”
Nothing like an insincere corporate apology to warm our cold, dead, capitalist hearts.
8. Bud Light somehow makes fun with friends very creepy — 2015
@hainsworthtv on Twitter
This ad, much like the Bloomingdale’s one, was released (with perfect timing) at the height of the #MeToo movement. Bud Light’s “Up for Whatever” campaign features fun slogans such as “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.’ Because nothing says “fun night with friends” like consuming a substance that supposedly completely negates your ability to consent!
In fairness, we totally get what they were trying to do here. The message was supposed to be “drink our beer and you’ll be more confident and spontaneous!” But please, for the love of god, stick your head out the window for once and gain a bit of perspective. As marketers, we need to be aware of the social and political climates that exist, and take those into account more than anything. Otherwise, it leads to severe consequences and international backlash, much like the next star of our two decade’s worth of fails…
9. Pepsi ends racism with one ad — 2017
This was debatably one of THE most highly publicized advertising fails of the decade. At the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement, as people were taking to the streets in a passionate, valiant display of desire for real change, Kendall Jenner (of the Kardashian clan) single-handedly ended decades of systemic racism in the U.S.. How, you may ask? By strutting through a crowd of (surprisingly cheerful) protesters to hand a Pepsi can to a police officer. Who knew ending hundreds of years of suffering due to complex and repeat social and political failings could be SO easy?!
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize,” the company said in a statement released shortly after the ad went viral. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”
The good news, however, is that the commercial made for an excellent Coca Cola ad.
10. Peloton accidentally creates year’s greatest horror film — 2019
Peloton managed to scoot in and steal the spotlight right before the close of the decade with their commercial “The Gift That Gives Back,” which some have likened to a horror film. This ad tells the heartwarming tale of a husband gifting an extremely overpriced exercise bike to his already-thin wife. Throughout the rest of the ad, she films herself using the bike over the course of the year, in footage that closely resembles hostage tapes. At the end, she delivers the line “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me. Thank you.” It’s moving enough to be the next “Gift of the Magi” story.
The people were divided on this ad. One camp saying that a husband gifting his perfectly thin wife an exercise bike was sexist and “a male fantasy.” The other insisting, hey, he just wanted his wife to be healthy because he cares! We do have to admit, when you look a bit deeper at this ad, it is a little odd. Even if the husband did just want his wife to have a healthy outlet, based on her words and actions, it doesn’t seem that she ever had any prior interest in owning a $2,200 exercise bike. Which begs the more important question: is he really listening to her at all? Does he even know who his wife truly is? Is this ad just a metaphor for the wife being a hostage in her own failing marriage that she is powerless to leave?
The world may never know.
That’s a wrap!
We hope you got a kick out of the most heinous marketing and advertising blunders since Y2K. We sure did. Take a lesson from these companies and try to avoid ending up on next decade’s list!