The worst marketing campaigns ever

Bernardo Montes de Oca
December 6, 2021

To understand the worst marketing campaigns ever, we first have to get something clear. Some marketing campaigns are plain genius. In an instant, we click with them, and yes, we buy whatever they're selling.

Right now, I can bet a lot of great ideas come to mind. I can think of Apple's 1984 ad and Nike's Just Do It campaigns. Also, all the brands that used the white and gold/black and blue dress. By the way, it's black and blue, right? But, as there are great campaigns, there are epic failures. We love those, as they provide us with a lot of lessons.

Free pizza for life with a catch.

I can already imagine Domino's marketers. They probably said: there's no way people will do this. After all, this marketing campaign involved permanent body alterations, AKA tattoos. Well, it turns out that people don't give a damn about their bodies if there's free pizza. But that's not all, because it goes beyond that.

In 2018, Domino's in Russia offered free pizza if consumers tattooed the Domino's logo on their bodies. Now, that's bold, but the campaign didn't end there. Winners would get 100 free pizzas per year for the next 100 years. That's right, not one month, not one year. 100 years. The campaign started on August 31, 2018, and Domino's promised to run for two months.

A tattoo of the dominos logo on a neck, that's red with swelling, is one of the worst marketing campaigns ever

Again, Domino's probably underestimated the power of free food. Plus, we'll all be dead in less than 100 years. I'm sure they would take this one back.

An instant success?

Four hundred people tattooed themselves with the Domino's logo. Unfortunately, there were so many social network posts that Domino's canceled the promotion after four days. Instead, they rewarded the first 350 people who'd show the tattoo on Instagram and Twitter. But, that left out some, so, in the end, Domino's agreed to apply the promotion to 381 applicants.

Some tattoos were nice, others were not, but laughter aside, there's some darkness to this. After the Russian economy had stagnated in 2015, most participants got tattoos because it meant securing food.

We can call it a fail, but some people have free pizza for life. This campaign went wrong because everyone wanted in. But, what happens when people want out?

Who says I want your music?

By the end of the '90s, U2 was the most famous rock band in the world. In 2000, the band cemented its place with albums such as "All that you can't leave behind" and "How to dismantle an atomic bomb."

U2 packed stadiums and dominated the charts. Three albums reached platinum levels, but the band took five years to develop a new one. Still, U2 believed that, after half a decade, they were still as relevant as always. Even Bono said part of being an artist has a bit of megalomania.

So, what was the plan? U2 partnered with Apple to do "something special." Rumors spread that it would be a live performance at the Apple event or that a new album would be available in special edition iPods. Something along those lines was partly true.

Tim Cook smiles as he holds Bono's hand on the right, with Edge and Larry Mullen clap in the background,. when they celebrate the Apple and U2 partnership, one of the worst marketing campaigns ever

U2 did take the stage, they performed one song, and then Tim Cook said: "isn't that the greatest you've ever heard?". That's a ballsy statement, even for Apple. Then Bono announced that they wanted their music to reach everyone. So, that's what they did.

The new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, was in every iTunes account. And, people hated the idea. People lashed at both Apple and the band from privacy intrusion to "hey, I don't even like U2".

U2 was now the world's most hated band, and in a matter of days, Apple released a guide on how to remove the album. A month later, Bono apologized. The total cost was $100 million. And I bet, a few jobs. The lesson is, sometimes, celebrities and marketing campaigns don't work. Sorry, Kendall.

She's no marketing savior

Let's start at the end. Here's what Pepsi said:

"Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize." So, why was the soda giant apologizing? Because of one ad. Young people, all holding signs, all attractive, protest in front of a police line. It's a peaceful scene, and there's no violence.

Right around the corner, Kendall Jenner is finishing a photoshoot. She steps out of the shoot, rubs off her makeup, and takes a Pepsi can. She parts the crowd like a modern-day savior and faces a good-looking police officer. Then, she gives the Pepsi can. He smiles, then drinks, and everybody is happy. Except no one is. The world was pissed at this ad, but why?

Well, times weren't easy in the US in 2017. Political turmoil, racial issues, Black Lives Matter protests, so on. So, any campaign that dealt with these issues had to tread lightly. Pepsi didn't. They stomped their way into complete controversy. Immediately, and we're talking in a matter of hours, backlash flooded Pepsi. Even the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. said the ad mocked the civil rights movements.

Then, people complained about Kendall Jenner. If the woman would've been black in real life, it would've ended in the news for all the wrong reasons. The backlash was such that this ad lasted only one day before Pepsi pulled it from circulation and apologized. That's got to be a record.

Marketing rule: don't trust your product too much

Lifelock is a security company that prides itself in, well, security. Yes, you might love your product, but sometimes you can love it too much.

In 2007, LifeLock felt so proud of its product that it launched one of the most courageous and stupid marketing campaigns out there. Then CEO, and co-founder, Todd Davis created a campaign that if it worked, it would be genius. But, if it didn't, it would be stupid. And, this is Forensics, so, spoiler alert.

Davis went on every media outlet, from TV ads to billboards, to the internet, and revealed his social security number. The idea was that no one could hack his account and steal his identity. That's how confident he was in LifeLock.

Yeah, that's not what you want hackers to hear. From 2007 to 2008, hackers used his identity not once but 13 times. If that wasn't enough, the Federal Trade Commission sued LifeLock for $100 million for false advertising.

At least the story has a happy ending. In 2017, Symantec bought the company for $2.3 billion. I wonder if they kept the marketing team.

Marketing can also be socially sensitive

Playing ping pong with Arnold Schwarzenegger sounds pretty cool, right? In 2014, Bud Light released its Up for Whatever campaign. It seemed great: lighthearted, spontaneous, and carefree.

The ads were simple and efficient. First, someone had to say: yes, I'm up for whatever. Then, take a Bud Light and brace for, literally, whatever. Bud Lights bottles had 140 sentences, and one of them read The perfect beer for removing "no" from your vocabulary. At first, it seemed innocent enough. It referred to partying and having a good time.

Until you read between the lines, and people took no time in doing so. The "removing no from your vocabulary" phrase immediately sparked controversy. There was an instant association with date rape and the lack of consent. The hashtag #upforwhatever started circulating and going viral but for all the wrong reasons Bud Light.

Image for Marketing fails: the ad for #upforwhatever, shows a beer bottle on the right, with people dancing in the background

Bud Light apologized and dropped that line from the 140 lines in beer bottles. In the end, analysts disagree on whether it was a blunder or a high-risk, high-reward move. What do you think?

On the edge of bankruptcy

Back in 2003, Red Lobster president Edna Morris had to step down from her position after less than a year on the job. She left her position with a lack of satisfaction as she felt she couldn't fulfill all her goals. She also left a company in dire straits. Many wondered if Red Lobster would go bankrupt, and it was all because of crabs.

Morris launched an Endless Snow Crab promotion for $22.99. Now, that's not cheap for an all-you-can-eat. But, if it's snow crab, it's really cheap. So, the promotion was a hit. That's good news for the restaurant, right? Not quite. At that time, the Snow Crab price was going up as the US government implemented quotas to help preserve the species.

So, the price of crab skyrocketed. And that's not the only factor. People love snow crab. So, expensive products and a lot of customers? That's a recipe for disaster. Red Lobster lost so much money that it sparked a stock sell-off once word got out. In a single trading session, the parent stock, Darden Restaurants, lost $405,9 million. Ouch.

But, the examples get worse. Way worse.

This is total crap.

Have you ever heard of Ratner Group? It's okay if you haven't.

The Ratner Group was a jewelry distributor that flourished in the UK after an aggressive expansion during the '80s. The brand became a hit for its cheap items and plenty of stores. Though jewelry gained a reputation for being somewhat tacky, Ratner was extremely popular. At one point, it was one of the UK's biggest businesses.

That is until CEO Gerald Ratner took to the stage in 1991. Now, Ratner was part of the family and in charge of growing the Ratner group from 130 stores to 2500, making it a powerhouse in the market. So, he had earned respect. Then, this happened.

Now, let's give him credit. The entire skit is quite funny. But he's not a comedian. So, when the CEO trashes the product, it's not great for business. After his little rant about selling crap, the company lost 500 million British pounds.

From 1992 to 1994, the company closed 300 stores. And, in November 1992, Gerald Ratner resigned. But, I have to say, it took him long enough. The company even had to change names to the Signet group to avoid further losses. So, don't call your product crap. Just don't.

And granted, this one isn't a marketing campaign. But, it's so funny I wanted to talk about it. Let's close with a marketing fail legend. Or was it a win?

Out with the old, in with the New

The '80s were an interesting time for food and beverage. Older consumers wanted healthier products. The younger audience wanted something with a bit more flare. So, trends were changing, and not even giant Coca-Cola could escape the changing horizon.

Coca-Cola had lost ground against the newcomer Pepsi with the younger crowd. The company sold a lot of diet coke, which was a hit with the older audiences. Also, it introduced Cherry coke, which was a "specialty" but successful altogether. So, while it grew, Coca-Cola was also losing market share in the full-sugar cola department.

In 1986, Roberto Goizueta, the controversial CEO, came up with an idea to create a brand new product. He decided to tweak the recipe to improve taste and lure in more customers. He was using evidence from case studies in the Bahamas and taste tests in the US. They showed that clients would accept a new, bolder flavor.

Image for Marketing Fails: two men hold new coke cans

So, New Coke entered the market. Goizueta was so confident that he assured the public that the new product would be an instant hit. There's only one problem. People are sensitive about Coke. More so in the south, which is also one of its biggest markets. And, yes, we're talking Coca-Cola, not cocaine.

That was one of Coca-Cola's mistakes. The company pushed New Coke in states like New York and Washington DC. It handed cans to workers and even started selling the New Coke in McDonald's. So in those areas, sales did go up.

Localized praise for Coke led to one of the company’s biggest marketing fails

But, in the south, numbers did the opposite. Fans lashed out. Changing the recipe was betraying tradition and selling out to the "Yankees" in the North. Pepsi, by the way, had its base in NYC.

Coca-Cola's hotline, 1-800-GET-COKE; again, I'm withholding the jokes, got 1,500 calls a day from angry consumers. People even went to shrinks to deal with the issue. So you don't mess with Coke fans.

One man even filed a class-action suit, but it didn't get anywhere. The legend goes that the Judge was a Pepsi guy. So, it didn't go far. Pepsi, of course, preyed on this and blasted Coca-Cola on its ads.

Bottling companies sued the company as they feared this change could rattle their long-term markets. Even large markets like Mexico rejected the idea for fear of losing out to other brands.

Things were so tense that, even if New Coke was selling well in some states, executives at the company were nervous. So, on July 11, 1985, two months and twenty days after New Coke entered the market, Coca-Cola decided to reintroduce the classic recipe. The US Senate called it a significant moment in US history.

The old recipe entered as Coca-Cola Classic, and New Coke survived as Coke for seven more years. Now, for the conspiracy part. Coca-Cola Classic sales spiked after the reintroduction.

Sales, in general, bounced back. The stock increased, and Coca-Cola's market share went up, never to drop. Also, no one lost their jobs, and Coca-Cola has claimed that it took them a long time to understand why it failed. So, perhaps it was all an evil plan. Genius, if you ask me.

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable. From start-ups to nature, from literature to aviation. Hearing impaired, so let’s talk loud and clear.
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