Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, marketing goes wrong. It’s not that the team behind a particular campaign had any malicious intent, but being out of touch or failing to run your ideas by someone who hasn’t hear them before can result in a great concept going terribly wrong.
These days, there’s so much content and so many channels that, in a rush to be the next viral sensation, even big brands can trip over themselves. Let’s take a look at some recent marketing blunders and how to avoid them yourself.
The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad
Chances are, you already know this one — it’ll go down in history as one of the biggest marketing missteps of all time.
Pepsi has, for a long time, been trying to make their soda the unofficial drink of youth, energy, and a unifying cultural force. They wanted to paint their brand as something that can bring people together despite their differences. An admirable goal, but the execution left something to be desired.
What they did instead was to recruit Kendall Jenner, reality TV star and Instagram model, to walk into what appears to be a Black Lives Matter protest and defuse the situation by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi.
Not surprisingly, people who take issues like police brutality and racial injustice seriously — most of the country — were not amused. Add in the fact that in the minds of many, Kendall Jenner is the perfect archetype of white privilege, wealthy and out of touch, and the spot was a disaster.
It was ridiculed on social media, mocked on SNL, pulled off the air and off the internet, and resulted in the resignation of PepsiCo president Brade Jakeman, who described it as “the most gut-wrenching experience of my career.”
The lesson? Don’t try to use major, hot-button social issues to sell soft drinks. It cheapens the issues for those who are passionate about them and comes off as callous.
Dove’s Good Intentions Go Wrong
Dove has been running its “Real Beauty” campaign, featuring unretouched photos of non-models in a positive light, for 15 years now, with mostly positive results. It resonates with women who don’t see themselves represented in advertising and emphasizes positive body image for women.
The problem came when Dove posted an image on Facebook in the form of four panels, showing a young black woman removing her shirt to reveal a young white woman underneath.
While the ad was supposed to show “the diversity of real beauty,” social media viewers didn’t take it that way. The order of the panels implied to many that the black woman was “dirty” and the white woman “clean,” or that black women secretly wish they were white women underneath.
The takeaway is that sometimes, it pays to be overly critical of your own work. While we don’t think that Dove had any intention of implying that one race was superior to another with this simple image, their failure was in not considering how it might be seen through others’ eyes.
Wendy’s Plays With Fire
Wendy’s is known for running some of the funniest, most irreverent social media accounts out there — uncommon for such a big brand, but much beloved. For example, when a Twitter user complained, “Wendy’s needs to get rid of the square burger it seems a little too... artificial,” Wendy’s snapped back with, “Unlike the super natural circle shape that hamburgers come in when you pick them off the vine.”
So it was little surprise to anyone who follows them that Wendy’s got into a brief Twitter spat with customers over whether their beef was really “never frozen,” as they claim. The problem was that Wendy’s responded to the beef by posting a “Pepe the frog” meme.
Pepe the frog, like any other silly internet meme, has innocent origins. Unfortunately, Pepe has also been co-opted by far-right and white supremacist groups, making him a little too controversial for mainstream use. Wendy’s realized their mistake and pulled the image.
The moral of the story is that if you’re going to use pop culture references, make sure you do your research and take a good look at the context that your reference came from.
Adidas Puts Its Foot In Its Mouth
Adidas, the shoe and sporting attire company, was a major sponsor of the 2017 Boston Marathon. After the event, they sent an email to all participants that started, “Congratulations, you survived the Boston Marathon!”
While talking about “surviving” a race or big event is a very common turn of phrase that might have been harmless in any other context, customers were instead uncomfortably reminded of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three and injured more than 250 people.
Remember: context is important. This email was probably written and designed by one or two people in an hour or so, and it never crossed their mind that their words might be misconstrued like this. But if they’d taken the time to run it by a few other sets of eyeballs, they might have caught the misstep. It’s worth the effort to avoid mistakes like this.