The 12 Most Controversial Ad Campaigns of the 21st Century
How far would an organization be willing to go for the chance to generate a little extra buzz? In this list, we're going to find out.
Running an ad campaign in the digital age is a tricky business. Between radio advertising, print ads, and digital marketing, everyone has a platform in the modern day. Make an advert that's forgettable, and you can guarantee it'll be forgotten. Businesses need to be a little more daring if they hope to stand out from the crowd.
Controversy is like a balancing act. Walk the perilous tightrope correctly, and you've just captured the attention of the world. Slip off the tightrope, however, and you risk falling into the fire.
From sexist jokes and racial insensitivity to anti-patriotism and unrealistic body standards, we’ve seen dozens of companies miss the mark with their ad campaigns in recent years. In this list, we're going to condense down twelve of the most controversial. Let's get into the list.
12) Dettol - Murderers don't make a great target audience
Okay, we're getting right into the weird stuff.
Back in the 2010s, multi-purpose disinfectant brand Dettol decided on a rather strange way to push its new cleaning product. Specifically, the company released a digital advertising campaign that marketed its disinfectant as a great way to clean up after... murdering someone. Yep…
We could be wrong here, but we're inclined to believe there isn't a great deal of crossover between Dettol's target audience and murderers. Would anyone genuinely look at this advert and proudly exclaim, 'ah, that's just what I was looking for'? Likely not. How this one got past the idea stage is beyond logic.
11) KFC - Running out of chicken makes the Colonel curse
Back in 2018, KFC ran out of chicken—not the best situation for a brand that almost exclusively sells poultry.
In a humorous attempt at apologizing for the inconvenience, the fast food chain ran a full-page advert simply headlined 'FCK', rearranging the company's letters to showcase their frustration at the situation.
While many consumers found the ad hilarious, some weren't convinced. The company received a number of complaints from those who thought the use of the F-word was tasteless. Incidentally, many expressed greater frustration over the advert than they did over the world's leading chicken restaurant running out of chicken. Who'd have thought?
10) Bristol Dry Gin - How not to capitalize on current events
The Black Lives Matter movement was the necessary product of racial inequality and horrific human tragedies. Sadly, that didn't stop some brands from attempting to capitalize on the situation.
One such company was Bristol Dry Gin, which made headlines in the UK after posting an incredibly distasteful Tweet. The post referenced the ongoing BLM protests, stating, 'when the shooting starts, the looting starts'. The gin company then encouraged protesters to use their gin as a flammable explosive.
Sometimes, you simply have to ask: Is there really no quality control here? How does this marketing strategy get the green light? Bristol Dry Gin removed the post shortly after and uploaded an apology. Naturally, it did little to quell the flames, with many stores dropping the brand's products from their shelves shortly thereafter.
9) Reebok - Infidelity is fine, but skipping a workout isn't
As one of the only examples of print media on this list, sports brand Reebok takes first prize for 'how not to run a billboard ad'.
Back in 2012, the company ran a number of posters in Germany. Each led with the phrase 'cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout'. Understandably, this attempt at humor didn't go down well, with many arguing that Reebok was glorifying infidelity.
The company promptly removed the advert and issued an apology, stating they don't promote cheating in any form. Probably not the best advertising campaign to run, in that case, Reebok.
8) WWF- The Tsunami Relief Campaign
Back in 2008, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released an advert featuring simulated scenes of the 9/11 tragedy. The company then went on to detail how many people died from the attacks.
The advert then reveals that the Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia caused 280,000 deaths, 100 times more than the September 11 tragedy.
The WWF's advertising efforts were an attempt to illustrate why we should respect the power of our planet. Sadly, the inclusion of simulated 9/11 footage was a step too far. Consumers heavily criticized the brand for its attempt to capitalize on the tragic events, and the commercial was promptly axed. Incidentally, the WWF tried to lay the blame on its less experienced staff. Way to take responsibility for your actions, WWF.
7) PureGym - Slavery was hard, and so is this…
Back in 2020, UK fitness center PureGym's Luton and Dunstable branch made a Facebook post detailing an exercise challenge for the month, including fan favorites such as burpees, push-ups, and deadlifts.
Unfortunately, rather than simply labeling the routine a 'great way to whip your body into shape', PureGym decided it would be an excellent idea to name the training regime after one of their favorite movies. The name they chose? 'Twelve Years of Slave', inspired by the Oscar-winning 2013 film 12 Years a Slave. Genius.
As if the name wasn't bad enough, PureGym also attempted to make their workout seem more strenuous by claiming that 'slavery was hard, and so is this'. Oh dear. Consumers were quick to remind PureGym that comparing a calorie-burning workout to the enslavement of African Americans isn't a great marketing move.
The backlash was swift and decisive. If you're looking for the brand on Facebook, don't bother. The entire page was deactivated entirely following PureGym’s prompt public apology over the matter.
6) Protein World - Are you beach body ready?
When Protein World posted its 'beach body' ad on the walls of several London Underground stations in 2015, they received hundreds of complaints, with many arguing that the company was promoting unrealistic body standards.
Several acts of vandalism and a number of parodies followed (including one particularly humorous 'are you beer body ready' campaign from lager brand Carlsberg).
As if things couldn't get any worse, Protein World retaliated against the social media backlash, calling its complainers #fattysympathisers. Evidently, the old adage "when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" was lost on this brand.
The UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) investigated the ad, eventually banning it because it was making unjustifiable health claims.
Despite all of the controversy, Protein World's Chief Marketing Officer announced that the public backlash actually helped the company turn a bigger profit. What doesn't kill your business makes it stronger, we suppose.
5) Burger King - BK forgets how Twitter works
Remember earlier when I said that creating controversy to propel your brand is like walking a tightrope? This is an example of a company that missed the tightrope (and the safety net) entirely.
In 2021, Burger King posted a tweet stating that 'Women belong in the kitchen'.
Why would Burger King post something so brazenly misogynistic? Well, when viewing the attached replies, users realized that the initial tweet was actually drawing attention to the fact that only 20% of chefs are women. Burger King was hoping to empower female opportunities with the opportunity to pursue their culinary career.
"Ha, jokes on you! The first sexist Tweet was actually just a prank. Gotcha! Bet you clicked to find out more, didn't you? Wait, you did, didn't you?"
No. Unfortunately, very few people did.
Burger King failed to realize that most Twitter users simply scroll through their feeds rather than examine content in-depth. This means that thousands of users saw Burger King validating sexism rather than attempting to promote equality. Great work, BK!
The public backlash was relentless, with thousands stating that Burger King was validating misogynism. The fast food chain spent the rest of the day profusely apologizing for their terrible idea before finally removing the tweet.
4) Nivea - How did this ad campaign get greenlit?
On occasion, you look at a controversial ad campaign and think to yourself, 'how is it possible they didn't notice how bad this sounds'?
When German skincare brand NIVEA uploaded its new social media advertising campaign back in 2017, users were quick to point out that the slogan 'white is purity' could be taken the wrong way.
The ad was designed to promote NIVEA's invisible deodorant. Presumably, the slogan was an attempt to highlight that the deodorant wouldn't leave stains on white clothing. Understandably, consumers didn't read it that way.
We're not sure how no one at NIVEA spotted the racial undertones in this ad, but they were quick to realize their mistake and commence 'operation damage control'.
After issuing a formal apology, NIVEA added a section on 'inclusivity' to its core values in what some might consider a disingenuous attempt at quelling the flames.
3) Nike - Just Do It doesn’t do it for fans
Nike's Just Do It ad featuring Colin Kaepernick is one of the most polarizing advertising campaigns on this list. Some loved it. Some loathed it. But, above all, it got everybody talking.
For those unfamiliar, NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked outrage in 2016 when he refused to stand during the American national anthem in protest of racial inequality. While some praised Kaepernick for his heroic stance against racism in America, many felt the gesture was anti-patriotic and disrespectful.
With millions of Americans making their dislike for Kaepernick known, it's perhaps no surprise that Nike's 2018 campaign, which featured the athlete as a leading spokesperson, didn't go down too well.
While some Americans expressed their support of Nike for deciding to feature Kaepernick, many others denounced the advert, claiming the sports brand was supporting a traitor to the US.
Thousands began posting videos of themselves burning Nike products online. Despite all of this backlash, Nike strangely sales saw a significant increase in its sales the same year. Apparently, it turns out burning your own products purchased from a company doesn't actually impact the brand's turnover. Who knew?
This is one of the cases in which a controversial ad campaign was likely a carefully planned strategy.
Unlike many of the more serious controversies on this list, Kaepernick's anti-patriotic actions weren't enough to destroy Nike's credibility. But they were more than enough to generate a buzz. Nike knew what they were doing, and it worked. The brand was firmly in the public eye, and its sales haven't slowed down since.
2) McDonald's Filet O' Fish lands McDonald’s in hot water
When McDonald's shamelessly attempted to use child bereavement as a way to promote its Filet-o-Fish burger back in 2017, the fast food chain was met with enormous backlash.
The controversial ad depicts a young boy asking his mother 'what his dad was like'. As the mother lists all of the traits and qualities of her now-deceased husband, the son tries to find some similarities between himself and his father without success.
Finally, however, the son discovers that he and his dad were more alike than he ever knew. The child orders a Filet-o-Fish burger at McDonald's, which just so happens to have been his dad's favorite order, too. How very touching.
The complaints flooded in, with many claiming the brand was trying to use bereavement as a marketing ploy. McDonalds removed the ad shortly after.
What's the deal with multi-billion dollar brands trying to link their products to complex societal issues and sensitive topics? Next, you're going to tell me that Pepsi tried to sell itself as the cure to police brutality. Oh, wait.
1) Pepsi - And the award for 'worst advertising campaign' goes to…
When it comes to high-profile advertising flops, Pepsi takes the cake, and it's not even up for discussion.
The soft drink brand's Live for Now advertising campaign was so poorly executed that Pepsi pulled the ad within 24 hours of launch following enormous backlash.
Pepsi's two-and-a-half minute advert depicts a diverse crowd of young people protesting against... Well, we don't actually know. Given the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests that were occurring at the time, however, we can take a pretty good guess what Pepsi was trying to depict.
A row of stern-faced police officers surround the protesters. It looks like things could take a turn for the worse. Fortunately, Kendall Jenner has arrived to save the day. The supermodel strolls in, holding a can of Pepsi. The music stops for dramatic effect as Kendall hands the beverage to the police officer. He drinks the can. Everybody cheers. Police brutality is over, and racism is no more! Thanks, Pepsi!
Obviously, this was the wrong message. The brand's vision that deep-rooted inequality and racism could be solved by sharing a Pepsi was bizarre and, as many consumers pointed out, ridiculously insensitive.
Seriously? Who was the target market here? What was the end goal? To show the world that Pepsi was the cure to all inequalities?
Naturally, the advert bombed. Community backlash was immediate and extensive, with numerous famous figures speaking out against the brand. Pepsi pulled the ad in under a day and issued a public apology shortly after.
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Robert is an experienced marketing professional with extensive experience working with brands to refine go-to-market plans, SEO campaigns, and content marketing strategies. A committed writer with a keen eye on the latest developments, Robert specialises in producing content across all things tech and marketing.