What We Learned from Five Questionable Marketing Campaigns


  • When it comes to controversial issues, be prepared for backlash.
  • Always make sure you can stand by what you’re selling.
  • User generated content can be great, but only if you vet it first.
  • The best marketers have a sixth sense about customers’ pain points – or at least a second opinion.

With an endless stream of reality TV and social media fails to follow, it’s easier than ever these days to indulge in some good old-fashioned schadenfreude – AKA laughing at others’ misfortune. And it’s no different in marketing, where the need to stay ahead of the curve and inside the limelight can encourage some pretty risky choices that don’t always hit the mark.

But as with all failures, we like to look at marketing fails as an opportunity to learn. So behold, below, some of the more questionable marketing decisions to come out of the last few years – plus some nuggets of wisdom to be gained from them. Because we all make mistakes!

(You can still laugh, though. We won’t judge.)

1. “Meth. We’re on it.”

Sometimes, something really just sounds much better in theory than in practice. Many people thought that was exactly the case with the wordplay at the center of the anti-methamphetamine campaign run by South Dakota last fall. As with many of the following marketing fails, this ad fell into dangerous territory because it addressed a problem that causes real tragedy in people’s lives. In order to grab people’s attention, the state decided to go with a corny tagline containing a double meaning.

To be fair, the widespread mocking that followed the ad proves that the campaign did accomplish its goal of “raising awareness.” This is exactly how the state defended its decision to run the campaign in the first place.

Whether you think this is marketing genius or an example of a well-intentioned ad missing the mark will be a matter of personal opinion. Either way, it highlights the importance of fully understanding the consequences of your marketing campaign and being prepared to deal with the potential fallout.

Lesson: Risky marketing campaigns spark controversy as a rule.

2. The Walkers Selfie Competition

You could hardly invent a better example of user generated content (UGC) gone wrong. Back in 2017, UK brand Walkers took advantage of social media and automation to run a UGC campaign. People would submit selfies of themselves, which would then be automatically uploaded into a pre-made frame featuring the Walkers logo and spokesperson, paired with a cheesy caption, then posted to Twitter.

Genius, right?

Well, apparently the Walkers marketing team had to learn rule number one of UGC the hard way: Make sure there’s a way to vet the content before it goes live. Because soon enough, trolls started submitting “selfies” of all kinds of unsavory types, and the Walkers Twitter account was churning out photos of literal dictators and serial killers with the caption “Great shot!”

Lesson: Always vet your user generated content (UGC) before it goes live. There’s a reason you’re the one in charge of marketing, not your audience!

3. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad

There’s probably not a single person who’s ever used the internet who doesn’t remember one of the most widely ridiculed ads in recent history. Yep, we’re talking about that time Kendall Jenner broke up a standoff between Black Lives Matter protesters and police with a can of Pepsi.

Making a state-wide declaration of being “on meth” is one thing – at worst, you could say it’s a little awkward but well-intentioned. But what upset people so much about this Pepsi ad was that it seemed to suggest that a product as simple as soda could solve one of the most hot-button social issues in the history of America.

Sure, this approach grabs attention all right, but it’s not necessarily the right kind of attention. Many people were just offended.

Lesson: Taking advantage of hot-button issues can be an unsustainable marketing model. It can win attention in the short-term but cost actual customers in the long run.

4. The Adidas Boston Marathon Email

We all love a good email marketing campaign. It’s a great way to build deeper relationships and stronger customer loyalty with your client base. That’s undoubtedly what Adidas was aiming for when they sent out a marketing email after the 2017 Boston Marathon.

Unfortunately, by then, the annual event had become haunted by the infamous 2013 marathon that was tragically targeted by a terrorist bombing that killed three people. That’s probably why readers were so offended by the subject line Adidas chose: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”

This lesson feels especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to an incredible loss of life globally, not to mention mental health issues like anxiety associated with the changes, uncertainty and social separation caused by the crisis. For marketers, it’s more important than ever to empathize with customers’ needs.

Lesson: Good marketers need to have a sixth sense about customers’ pain points. Pay attention to context, and get a second opinion when in doubt.

5. The Fyre Festival

Nope, we’re still not over this, even after writing a whole blog about it. Maybe that’s because the lesson from Fyre Fest still feels so relevant. New social media platforms like TikTok continue to vie for our attention, while the technology behind bots, other AI, and deceptive content like deep fakes gets better. That translates to ever more opportunities for users to be taken in by empty promises.

The thing about Fyre Fest was that its marketing worked well – too well. Sure, many believe Billy McFarland never had good intentions from the start. But what about everyone else who helped make the whole thing happen? Of the many things that can be said about Fyre Fest, one clear takeaway is the power of hype – even your own hype.

Even the most well-intentioned marketers know that when the creative juices get flowing, it’s easy to get carried away with how awesome that product or campaign is going to be – well before the details are actually hammered out.

Lesson: Good marketing is nothing without a good product or service behind it. In fact, it’s worse than nothing – it’s deceptive. Make sure you can put your money where your mouth is.

Like we said, no marketer is perfect. But we’re certainly trying our best, starting with taking some lessons from companies that learned the hard way so we don’t have to. Interested in seeing how we might put those lessons to use? Get in touch with the Redefine team today!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie was an SEO content writer before transitioning to a management role. As the co-founder and Head of Content at RMG, she oversees everything from the development of content strategies and content creation to day-to-day office operations. She graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a degree in Journalism, and enjoys showing clients the power and versatility of content.
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