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10 Most Controversial Ads of Recent Years

controversial ads

Ads have been essential tools for many businesses worldwide for as long as we can remember. They have a multitude of purposes — promoting services or products, raising brand awareness, building brand loyalty, and much more. Essentially, ads are supposed to put your brand in the spotlight. But what happens if they do that in all the wrong ways? What happens if your business puts out a controversial ad?

Let’s clear one thing up first — controversy is not always bad; however, it is a slippery slope! As a rule of thumb, you should avoid it like the plague. But if it does happen, you should try to make the best of it. And by that, we mean try to save face. 

“Bad press is better than no press.”

P. T. Barnum

If this quote just crossed your mind, tread carefully. Barnum’s point of view might apply for small businesses without much to lose, but if you’re a famous brand with a broad existing audience, controversy and bad press can be detrimental to your growth and sales

OK, but how can you protect yourself from potential controversy? By learning from others’ mistakes, of course! Also, a bit of market and audience research helps as well! So don’t forget to dedicate your time to that before launching your ad campaign.

But now, let’s take a look at some of the most infamous and controversial ads of the past years! In the end, we’ll also provide you with an overview of what to avoid in your ads to safeguard yourself from controversy adequately. So lean back, put your learning hat on, and enjoy!

10 Most Controversial Ads of Recent Years

Here are some of the most controversial ads to date:

Let’s immediately get to it!

Pepsi — Tone Deaf to the Core

This advertising fail was so huge that Pepsi removed the ad within 24 hours of its launch. The ad was simple in premise — it showed some sort of protest composed of a widely mixed crowd, after which Kendall Jenner, who’s been doing a photoshoot nearby, stops, joins the protesters, and hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer to… save the day?

Sounds pretty dull, doesn’t it? Not quite like controversial material? Wrong.

This ad was abysmally bad because, at that time, there were Black Lives Matter protests happening in America. The ad tried to reference those events, even going so far as to trying to identify Jenner with a protester Lesha Evans who got arrested during the BLM protests. 

Pepsi received immediate backlash and condemnation due to their insensitive handling of the topic at hand. Overall, the brand’s most significant issue was that its message was incredibly tone-deaf and unfitting to their product.

NIVEA — White Is Purity?

Oh, boy… Where do we even begin? This controversial ad is a perfect example of what to avoid. Regardless of what kind of message the brand wanted to get across, the reality is that the creators of this didn’t think it through. Not only did NIVEA receive massive backlash and criticism for white supremacy and blatant racism, but they quickly had to switch gear to damage control. 

Following the debacle of this horrendous ad, NIVEA had to issue a formal apology, and it even added a section on diversity and inclusivity as one of the company’s core values in their bio.

Bristol Dry Gin — Lootin’ Shootin’ Controversy

Here’s a pretty recent gem! In the wake of current Black Lives Matter protests, riots, and looting sprees across America, Bristol Dry Gin decided to put this piece out there. 

How do you think the ad performed? That’s right — horrendously.

The ad was so insensitive about a severe problem plaguing the U.S. that it was highly inappropriate. The backlash that followed this ad led to many distributors dropping Bristol Dry Gin from their stores. Eventually, the company issued a formal apology, though the damage had already been done.

McDonald’s — Dead Father Scandal

This McDonald’s ad left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths after it had aired in Britain. Why? Because the ad toyed with child bereavement to sell burgers. Essentially, the ad revolved around a grim scenario where a child was asking his mother about his late father, culminating at McDonald’s, where it promotes their latest Filet-O-Fish. Even though the ad was merely aiming to target the consumers’ emotions and not cause controversy, it did so in a highly insensitive way that brought forth a lot of criticism. The public was quick to lash out at the fast-food brand on social media, soon after which the brand pulled the ad.

Dove — Body Wash… Your Skin Color?

Here we have another advertising controversy based on skin color. In this Dove’s commercial for one of their body wash products, an African American woman removing her top suddenly changes into a white woman. Whoever designed this ad must have had a long conversation with their boss after this ad aired… 

Not only did Dove get accused of “whitewashing,” but they also sparked a huge outrage on social media. The brand’s apology did little to curb the backlash, with many users deciding to boycott it. Even a hashtag #DoneWithDove managed to remain trending for weeks after the incident.

Gillette — We Believe… Men Are Toxic

Ah, yes. The ad that could have been good had it been done right… Although, we could say that for all of these ads, couldn’t we? The premise of this Gillette ad was to raise awareness of the inappropriate behavior of some men, popularly labeled toxic masculinity but ended up sending the wrong message. 

Although the ad’s goal was to give Gillette’s two cents on the Me Too movement, both men and women criticized the ad. It is not only full of degrading generalizations, but it was also condemned for emasculating men. This controversial ad screamed bully, sexual predator, toxic, and much more. 

The overwhelmingly negative feedback became even worse once people found out that Gillette was removing dislikes from their commercial on YouTube. The company has since replied, stating that they didn’t intend to cause controversy for controversy’s sake. However, this ad still left a bitter taste in many of their customers’ mouths.

Nike — Colin Kaepernick 2018 Campaign

The reason this particular ad rose to the status of infamy wasn’t like any of the ones we’ve covered so far. This Nike ad featured an ex-NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the American national anthem just two years prior. The reason behind Kaepernick’s protest was injustice in America.

Although Kaepernick disclosed his reasons behind his protest, he faced some serious backlash over it as many people deemed his act as anti-patriotic. The public hasn’t forgotten the ex-quarterback’s silent rebellion, so when he appeared in Nike’s ad, the masses went wild. 

Kaepernick’s role in the ad was that of motivating young athletes afraid of pursuing their dreams. Although the ad’s content was extremely positive, many people didn’t like Nike’s choice of spokesperson. However, despite a lot of negative press, there were also a lot of people who applauded Nike’s decision to support Kaepernick, and overall, despite the outrage, Nike’s sales went up!

Microsoft — 2020 Satanic Panic?

Oh boy, here’s another recent outrage, this time over Microsoft’s ad for mixed reality. This one was quite easy to miss as it escalated extremely quickly, and the tech giant pulled the plug even faster!

Namely, Microsoft recently created an ad for mixed reality featuring a controversial artist, Marina Abramović. Similar to the case of Colin Kaepernick and Nike, the ad’s contents weren’t problematic, but the person featured. However, in the case of Microsoft’s ad, the backlash was much more devastating. The original YouTube video where the ad first aired had received over 24,000 thousand downvotes before Microsoft finally removed it.

The ad received such massive backlash due to the nature of Abramović’s art, which was identified with spiritualism, ritualistic satanism, and performances that are deemed borderline barbaric. While there are people who consider her contribution to the artistic world invaluable, the public begged to disagree.

PETA — Save the “Whales”

This ad is the perfect example of how not to market yourself. Likely the worst part about this ad is that it was intentionally made offensive. Most people are left wondering what was going through the heads of marketers at PETA when they came up with this shameful ad, but we guess we’ll never know.

We are safe to assume this ad campaign didn’t go too well.

Carl’s Junior — The All Natural Boo…rger?

Carl’s Junior 2015 Super Bowl commercial was, although controversial, a massive success! But how did this fast-food company manage that? It’s pretty simple — sex sells!

This ad was purposefully so over the top that everyone loved it! Except for the critics, of course. Namely, the brand made a commercial that showed some skin, was brimming with sexyness, and made a ton of profit. The fact that the commercial had earned 2.5 billion media impressions even before its debut at the Super Bowl should be evidence enough just how successful it was.

“If people don’t complain, I go to the head of marketing and say, ’What’s wrong with our ads?’”

Andrew Puzder, Carl’s Jr. CEO

As you can see from the quote above, this brand readily accepts controversy in their marketing campaigns; however, unlike most of our entries on our list, they utilize a different approach. Instead of using something offensive, unappealing or intolerable, they use a foolproof method of “Be sexy, not mean.”

What Can Brands Learn From These Examples?

Let’s do a quick rundown of the primary takes from these controversial ads.

  • Avoid dealing with sensitive topics in your ads (race, gender, stereotypes, tragedy).
  • Don’t feature controversial people in your commercials.
  • Don’t be inappropriate.
  • Avoid marginalizing or offending anyone.
  • If you do any of the above, be prepared!
  • If everything goes awry, apologize!

In the end, everyone makes mistakes, and that’s normal. But if you ask us, it’s better to learn from others’ mistakes than your own! So take these accounts of controversial ads and make the best of them. Good luck, and be careful when making your next advertising campaign.

And if you’re interested in some additional reading material, may we suggest checking our article on the effectiveness of video advertising for your brand. We’re sure you’ll enjoy it!

Until next time! 

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