Advertising and marketing have always been ripe for missteps and pop-culture absurdity, but the emergence of the internet, followed by the rise of social platforms, created seismic changes in how we consume and enjoy media, products, and even communicate with each other. That has made for some historically fertile ground for brand failure, and here’s our tour through the most notable failures since Fast Company‘s birth in 1995—with lessons that endure for those wise enough to heed them.
Calvin Klein ‘kiddie porn’ campaign (1995)
In a campaign shot by fashion photographer Steven Meisel, the young models, combined with the basement-amateur-porno vibes, sparked enough backlash that it forced the Justice Department to open an investigation. Ultimately, the brand had to take out a full-page New York Times ad to declare, basically, that it wasn’t child porn. Not exactly the image you want to sell jeans and underwear.
McDonald’s Arch Deluxe (1996)
This was McDonald’s swing at attracting more sophisticated adult customers, with a secret mustard-mayo sauce that the fast-feeder hyped with ads featuring kids being grossed out by it. It was a flop that the company spent upwards of $100 million marketing, only to find out that adults who went to McDonald’s just wanted . . . regular McDonald’s.
WOW Chips (1996)
When Frito-Lay and Kellogg’s introduced no-fat versions of its biggest chip brands Pringles, Doritos and Lay’s, it was like a dream come true for weight-conscious snackers. Sales skyrocketed . . . until it was found that the key ingredient—fat substitute Olestra—actually acted as a laxative in our bodies, resulting in stomach cramps and diarrhea in many customers.
Orbitz bubble soda (1997)
It was supposed to be a lava lamp-like trip in the drinks aisle, or what Clearly Canadian called a “texturally enhanced alternative beverage.” The fruit drink featured small, floating gelatin balls. Somehow the ad campaigns featuring such taglines as “Prepare to embark on a tour into the bowels of the Orbiterium” and “The drink with balls,” weren’t enough to make people forget about the awful taste and gooey texture.
Apparently named for a Moroccan slang term for money, this was a digital non-cash currency (well before Bitcoin) that allowed people to buy e-commerce gift certificates at certain retailers. Because putting your credit card on the internet was scary! Whoopi Goldberg signed on to be the spokesperson, and at first people warmed to Flooz. But the novelty soon wore off as people wearied of being handcuffed only to Flooz retailers and a giant fraud ring. The company was gone by 2001.
Pontiac Aztek (2000)
It may have been parked in Walter White’s driveway, but the Aztek, widely considered one of the ugliest cars ever made, broke bad for everyone else. General Motors had high hopes for its attempt at attracting the grunge crowd, originally forecasting annual sales of up to 75,000. But even adding Tiger Woods as a spokesperson couldn’t help this dud sell more than 27,793 in its best-ever year.
It was touted as the transportation of THE FUTURE! That is, until people saw just how undeniably dorky they looked on it. Sure, it birthed a million and one different city tour companies, but it eventually became a punchline best suited for Gob Bluth (Arrested Development) and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
ESPN phone (2006)
This was ESPN’s mobile service built specifically for sports fans. You had to pay $300 for the phone, then a monthly subscription of between $65 and $225—to get scores, GameCast, ESPN.com content, and more. The company invested more than $150 million, including a Super Bowl ad, in the effort to get people who watched SportsCenter to carry it in their pocket. ESPN shut it down less than a year after launch. Insiders say it has helped the company succeed in mobile since then, but at the time this was a flop. According to the book These Guys Have All the Fun, Steve Jobs, whose iPhone was certainly the final nail in the ESPN Phone coffin, told then-president of ESPN George Bodenheimer, “Your phone is the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard.”
Bank of America ‘One’ video (2006)
Anyone who’s worked in a corporate environment (or watched The Office) knows that there is always at least a small amount of Kool-Aid-swilling cringe to be found in the name of “company culture.” Here, two BofA employees reworked U2’s hit “One” into a company merger anthem that was filmed, put on the internet, and went viral, earning the brand some free media for all the wrong reasons.
Microsoft Windows Vista (2007)
Originally intended to be the heir apparent to the wildly popular (and used) Windows XP, Vista was quickly plagued by a reputation of being too buggy, too slow, with too many security prompts and ultimately being deemed more hassle than it was worth. It soon became a punchline for the ongoing Mac vs. PC Apple ads, and got to the point where Microsoft created an ad itself acknowledging the product’s image problem.
Tropicana redesign (2009)
The epitome of the “If it ain’t broke” reality of brands, Tropicana thought it needed to evolve its look. The company introduced the new design on January 8, 2009, only to have its makeover immediately met with confusion and backlash from both customers and critics alike. The backlash resulted in a 20% drop in sales within weeks, forcing Tropicana to scrap the whole thing just a few weeks later by February 23.
Folgers ‘Coming Home’—aka The Incest Ad (2009)
It’s certainly not the worst ad in the last 25 years, but it’s definitely the only one that people associate with mild incest vibes and notorious enough to inspire an oral history a decade later. Sometimes there is such a thing as too much on-set chemistry.
‘United Breaks Guitars’ (2009)
Before user-generated content became a common channel for most marketers, Canadian musician Dave Carroll’s last ditch attempt to get United Airlines to pay for his guitar that was broken in transit after a year of asking became not only a viral YouTube smash, but a case study in the power of social media and how everything that a brand does can become brand communications.
Miracle Whip ‘We Will Not Tone It Down!’ (2009)
Rule No. 1: Miracle Whip may not be mayo, but it’s also not punk rock. Or cool. It’s a condiment. This campaign featuring hipster sandwich lovers dove headfirst into the “Hello, fellow kids” deep end, on its way to being a poster child for the idea that not every brand needs to be a lifestyle. A decade later, ad agency execs still whisper its name among the worst their business has ever spawned.
Gap logo redesign (2010)
Are we buying khakis or life insurance? Much like Tropicana a year earlier, the Gap decided it needed a refresh and launched a new logo that then-North American president Marka Hansen said honored the “heritage through the blue box while still taking it forward.” The negative reaction was immediate, inspiring a Facebook onslaught of mass proportions and international media coverage panning the whole idea, forcing the company to reverse course within a week.
This was Netflix’s new spin-off business for what had been its core DVD-mailing service after it became clear that streaming was its future. Problem was, absolutely no one asked for a new brand, and just to make things worse, Netflix also created consumer confusion around its pricing and subscription plans. Some chalk it up to hubris or desperation, but either way, less than a month after it launched, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings declared Qwikster dead.
Groupon Super Bowl ad (2011)
The Super Bowl is arguably the biggest stage for any brand, and here Groupon, then the fastest-growing internet phenomenon in history, bombed in front of 100 million people. The spot, created by agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, was meant to spoof celebrity ads and encourage people to donate to important causes. Instead, it came off as a fratty, racist dud that forced CEO Andrew Mason to issue a statement saying, “We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did—it’s the last thing we wanted.” The ad was pulled within a week, but it lives on, on worst-ever Super Bowl ad lists.
‘John Carter’ (2012)
A Disney blockbuster based on a beloved and influential sci-fi novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs helmed by Pixar star Andrew Stanton seems about as close to a sure thing as you could get in a movie. But right from the start, something was . . . off. Some blame the confusing source material, or the slow, flat trailer, or just the fact that there was no mention of Stanton’s Pixar past, or that the story came from the author of Tarzan, just to give people a reference point. A former studio marketing exec told Vulture, “This is one of the worst marketing campaigns in the history of movies.” The fact the film cost $250 million to make and made just $30 million on opening weekend certainly supports that theory.
AT&T 9/11 tweet/product placement (2013)
Sometimes it’s just best to stay quiet. By now, most brands have realized that 9/11 is one of those times, but that wasn’t always the case. In 2013, AT&T tweeted this photo of a hand holding a phone, showing the spotlights honoring the World Trade Center. The reaction was immediate, with people on Twitter and Facebook calling out the telecom for cramming a product shot into a tribute. The post was pulled within an hour, and the company issued an apology, but not before wide media coverage of the whole debacle.
Nationwide ‘Boy’ Super Bowl ad (aka The Dead Kid ad) (2015)
The Super Bowl is meant to be a fun time. Football! Beer ads! Snacks! Then Nationwide’s ad about a young boy who missed out on his life because he died in an accident completely managed to bum out millions of people and spoil the fun. The ad’s somber tone was widely panned, forcing the company to actually issue a statement explaining the ad. Much like a joke, if you have to explain your ad, you’ve already lost.
Subway: ‘Jared’s Pants Dance’ game (2015)
In perhaps the worst-timed marketing promo ever, Subway had this online game—referencing long-time spokesman Jared Fogle’s famous weight loss pants—active at the same time that Fogle pleaded guilty to charges of paying for sex with minors, and possession of child porn. Yikes!
A $700 WiFi-connected juicer that squeezed subscription pouches of precut veggies into your cup. But in what Fast Company‘s Mark Wilson called, “a cautionary tale of Silicon Valley over-design,” users soon found out—and savagely mocked online—that you could get just as much juice by squeezing the pouches by hand. It raised $120 million from investors and shut down after just 16 months.
Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad (2017)
Say the words “Kendall Jenner” and “Pepsi” and people know. Here we had a multicultural coalition protesting nothing in particular, when Kendall Jenner emerged to give a cop a Pepsi, and in the process, solve racism. Mocked by SNL, the blowback forced a tearful apology from Jenner and inspired conversations across corporate America about the importance of making sure that there are a diversity a perspectives in the room before a big decision. This is at the top of just about every Worst Ad list and will be for a long, long time.
Heineken’s ‘Sometimes, Lighter Is Better’ ad (2018)
A bartender notices a light-skinned woman disappointed by the calorie count of her white wine, so he pops open a Heineken Light and slides it across the party toward the young woman—and past a number of Black and brown-skinned patrons—as the tagline, “Sometimes, lighter is better” appears onscreen. The critical reaction was turbocharged when Chance The Rapper called the company out, forcing it to apologize and make a statement explaining itself.
North Face Wikipedia ‘hack’ (2019)
It must’ve felt so clever at the time. The North Face and its Brazilian agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made boasted about how the brand slyly evaded Wikipedia editors to embed the outdoor apparel giant’s products in high-traffic tourism pages for sites like Peru’s Huayna Picchu, Brazil’s Guarita State Park, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye. It may have appeared to be just another bit of benign stunt marketing, but it also further eroded trust on the internet in a way that only reinforced the worst assumptions about the devious amorality of marketers.