Take a Look at 15 of the Most Controversial (Or Just Plain Weird) Commercials of All Time

15 Controversial Commercials from Around the World
Scott Kalapos on Apr 5, 2019

Every now and then, we like to get away from just talking about our products and share some fun, unique, and thought-provoking content. That's what we'll be doing today, as this article explores 15 of the most controversial commercials ever to air. We'll be looking at ads from American television as well as international ads. What makes this list different from the typical banned/hated/laughably bad commercial articles is that many of the advertisements we'll share with you actually had nearly as much support as they did opposition - hence the crux of the controversy. Others were more universally panned, while still others that we'll present are fairly obscure and didn't raise much debate when they aired. However, much of the latter contain content that was deemed accessible decades ago, but would never fly now. 

Now that you know what this article is all about, we'll start off the list, which is in no particular order.

1 . The Flintstones Winston Cigarettes Commercial

Surprisingly enough, our list begins with a commercial featuring Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble lighting up and puffing away on some Winston cigarettes. Don't believe us? It really happened. Let's put this in context though; this commercial aired in 1961. While The Flintstones is often viewed as a kids' show these days, it was actually the first primetime animated sitcom aimed at adults. In the early 60s, smoking was still a big part of pop culture and many people's daily experience. That's why the commercial below didn't lead to much outcry when it originally aired. This would actually be impossible today, as by law, tobacco products can no longer be marketed on television. 

In this ad, we see Fred and Barney slouching around doing nothing as Wilma and Betty are hard at work around the yard and in the house. Bored, the animated pals try to come up with an idea for something to do. Barney suggests a smoking break, a notion Fred enthusiastically agrees to. They then proceed to light their smokes and puff away, all the while extolling the virtues of Winston's smooth, rich tobacco flavor. At the end of the ad, Fred shows a bit more chivalry, lighting the cigarette of a now-seated Wilma. As he does so, he sings the company slogan, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should!"
 

2. The Frito Bandito

Do you remember how we said some of the commercials in this article were controversial because they were both opposed and supported at the same time? Frito Lay's "Frito Bandito" commercials are a prime example. Running from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, these advertisements featured an impish animated character who was a bit too stereotypical in a negative way for some people's tastes. The Frito Bandito was voiced by Mel Blanc, the same voiceover artist who lent the voice of Speedy Gonzalez. He employed nearly the exact same voice and intonations for the Bandito. The character also had a decidedly scruffy appearance, carried a heavy amount of ammunition at all times, and could turn on a time from friendly to murderous. Consequently, it's not hard to see why some people found the character to be offensive and called for his removal. The National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee was one of the most notable objectors. 

 

Still, the lovable-if-offensive Frito Bandito did have his supporters. A survey conducted toward Hispanic Americans in the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, revealed that 85% of those questioned liked the Bandito and viewed him as a funny caricature rather than an offensive figure. Frito-Lay tried to tone down the character, though it wasn't a huge effort. They removed the Bandito's gold tooth and scraggly facial hair, but otherwise he changed little. Eventually, they did remove the artillery from his act as well. The company was hesitant to abandon this character, but ultimately did. He was replaced by the very forgettable Muncha Buncha Cowboys. Who? Exactly.

3. McDonaldland and the Hamburger Patch

We already talked a bit about McDonaldland in our 7 Deadly Sins of Product Promotion article. In that article, we related the tale of how the bizarre, psychedelic setting and tone of McDonaldland eventually led to a lawsuit from the Krofft brothers, creators of Lidsville and H.R. Pufnstuf. The suit was successful as the weird and downright creepy vibe was very obviously similar to that employed by the Krofft brothers in their children's television programs. What we didn't touch upon in that article was the whole idea of the Hamburger Patch. In the McDonaldland commercials, hamburgers were depicted as growing organically in a garden. This angered animal rights groups, who felt that children were being misled as to how hamburgers come into being. The particular sour note for those offended was that the unpleasant realities of the slaughterhouses of the day were being glossed over and mentally replaced by a jolly little farm with smiling, googly eyed hamburgers.

We were unable to find a video featuring the hamburger patch, but the McDonaldland video below depicts the neighborhood where it was located. With its long-since discontinued characters, disorienting feel, and bizarre, unnecessary narration is still quite an experience to watch. Take a look and we think you'll agree. Hamburglar sure looked a lot more evil back then.

 

4. Mac Tonight

In America, you really can't think of the phrase "television advertising" without also thinking of McDonald's. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, few companies had a larger presence during commercial breaks on the small screen. That's why their ads frequently find their way into so many discussions of retro commercials. The particular set of ads we're going to talk about today involve the mid-1980s Mac Tonight. This smooth, crooning, lounge singer character wore sunglasses and had a crescent moon for a head. The intention of the Mac Tonight advertisements was to target single and childless adults, reminding them the golden arches weren't just for tots and that a moonlight dinner at Mickey D's could be a sophisticated experience. Sort of.

 

The character was discontinued due to a lawsuit from the estate of Bobby Darrin, alleging that Mac Tonight was a rip-off of the Darrin classic "Mack the Knife". The claims were hard to deny, and Mac Tonight soon disappeared. He retained an odd cult following that still lasts to this day. Unfortunately, this also gave rise to a greater controversy. One of the most horribly racist and hateful memes of recent memory surrounds a character called "Moonman" who is a dead ringer for Mac Tonight. We don't even want to repeat the words or show the images from those videos. Instead, we'll just show you this cheesy Mac Tonight that brewed the initial, non-meme hubbub.

 

 

5. Groupon's Tibet Super Bowl Commercial

Super Bowl commercials have a tradition of being edgy and topical. After all, it costs millions of dollars to secure that 30 to 60 second space of real estate during the big game. Therefore, it's not hard to see why the companies who pay for these ads try their hardest to make them into fodder for Monday morning water cooler conversation and online debates. A good (or maybe really bad) example of this is a commercial from Super Bowl 2011 for the online coupon giant Groupon. It revolves around the hardships faced by the citizens of Tibet. It begins with a serious tone, but then devolves into offensive territory pretty quickly.

After a sober introduction by actor Timothy Hutton, the tone then changes to an irreverent one, talking about how great it is that 200 people were able to save money on fish curry served up by Tibetans... in a Chicago restaurant. Considering the harsh realities of what the people of Tibet have had to endure at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, any mockery of their experience is in pretty poor taste. It should come as no surprise that this commercial riled thousands. What is surprising is that at the time of its airing, Groupon was supporting a pro-Tibet charity on its site. Even more surprisingly, they didn't mention this fact when the cries of outrage started pouring in. The moral of the story? If you're going to say, "just kidding" after a tasteless joke, don't forget to actually say, "just kidding".

6. Coca-Cola's "America the Beautiful" Advertisement

Here's another commercial that could be seen as either positive or negative, all depending on one's viewpoint. During the 2014 Super Bowl, Coca-Cola aired a commercial in which "America the Beautiful" was sung throughout. The singing begins in English, but then transitions to Spanish, Hebrew, Tagalog, and Hindi, among other languages. It ends with the hashtag #AmericaIsBeautiful. On the one hand, this can be seen as a message of acceptance and a celebration of diversity. After all, we do pride ourselves on being a melting pot, do we not? On the other hand, very little shown in the commercial, save for some canyon scenes, is identifiably American in any notable way. This combines with the element of such an iconic American song being performed primarily in foreign languages. During an era in which nearly everything regarding our traditional culture is a hot-button issue, it's not a surprise that some viewers perceived tones of anti-Patriotism. We're not going to weigh in on either side, other than to just say that there was a strongly divided split among those who reacted to this commercial and that the debates became pretty heated. 

 

7. National Airlines - "Fly Me" Commercials

While they're no longer in existence, National Airlines was at one point in time one of the most powerful air travel companies in the USA. They were acquired by Pan-Am in 1980, a company which in turn folded due to financial problems in the early 90s. What people arguably remember most about National Airlines is their method of advertising. In the 1970s, National Airlines was stirring up controversy and outrage among women's rights organizations over their "Fly Me" advertising campaign. These commercials typically featured young, scantily clad women plugging the airline while using some rather suggestive phrasing.  

Catchphrases such as, "I'm (insert name). Fly me!" and "Take me, I'm yours!" would definitely not be accepted in this day and age, especially with the #metoo movement and recent Hollywood abuse revelations. Times were surely different when these commercials ran, but even by the standards of those days, these commercials really pushed things a little too far.

 

8. Jeno's Frozen Pizza Film Noir Style Commercial

Stan Freberg was a multi-talented man who at different times worked as an actor, voiceover artist, comedian, radio personality, and even as a puppeteer. While skilled and respected, he was no stranger to discord. More than one of his works were banned in various forms, though the late 1960s commercial for Jeno's frozen pizza was not one of them. It's a bit debatable to list this among a list of the most controversial commercials in history, only because it's such a little-known ad. Even Jeno's pizza isn't all that famous, compared to the likes of DiGiorno, Tony's, Tombstone, and Elios. Still, from personal experience, this blogger can tell you their frozen pizza is excellent and vastly underrated. Anyway, on to the actual commercial.

This commercial has somewhat of a film noir feel to it. The ad begins with Freberg's character running up a dimly lit staircase and kicking in a hotel room door, startling a woman who appears to be his wife or girlfriend. He very quickly gets in her face, taking a very aggressive tone, even though the topic of discussion is frozen pizza. When she replies, he goes as far as to get physical, whacking her with the pizza box. At one point, she asks him to be tender, to which he callously replies, "Of course it will be tender! I'm going to put it in the oven now!" With such an obvious domestic violence theme being played for laughs, it's surprising that this commercial has stayed off of the radar for so long.

9. UK Tango "Slap" Advertising Campaign

Tango® is a line of soft drinks that is highly popular in the UK as well as many countries in Central and Western Europe. Most of their sodas are fruit flavored, in a manner not too different from that of Fanta®. However, many Tango sodas include some degree of real fruit juice, and that's where the whole idea of the "Tango Slap" comes in. People in the commercials were always hit hard by the bold, fruity, and delicious flavor. Many of their commercials featured Orangeman, a short fellow completely obscured from view by way of an orange body suit. As orange is Tango's flagship flavor, Orangeman was a natural fit for their ads. At this point, the source of conflict may seem a little unclear. 

 

In his appearances, Orangeman would appear when the action was paused, with announcers calling out the actions of the consumers as if they were viewing an athletic event. Orangeman would run into the scene, in a vaguely soccer hooligan sort of style. He'd then go up to each Tango drinker and deliver a Tango Slap, which consisted of a double open handed slap to either side of a person's head. The trouble from this commercial started brewing when schoolchildren would try to copy Orangeman's antics. Unfortunately, in some cases this ended up causing significant injuries and even hearing damage. In other words, don't try this at home.

10. HomeAway "Test Baby" Super Bowl Commercial

HomeAway is a company that's quite similar to the more famous Airbnb. As many companies do, they tried to propel themselves into the national spotlight by way of a Super Bowl commercial. The particular commercial they created starred the "Ministry of Detourism", a secret government agency whose aim is to prevent bad vacations. After getting out of a helicopter, the officials go into a large test facility, full of simulated hotel rooms. Each room is filled with chaos, with the goal of creating the feeling that if you use another travel service and go to a commercial hotel, you may be in for a pretty bad time.

The focus eventually goes to one simulated room that is occupied by a husband, wife, two children, and an infant. The room is cramped and uncomfortable and everyone's in a bad mood. The two older children get into a violent altercation on the bed while their parents overhear and try to stop it. When the father tries to intervene, he falls backwards onto a table. Unfortunately, this is where the mother had just placed the baby, who ends up being catapulted toward the screen and incurs a smashed face. To be fair, the baby doesn't look anything close to real and the commercial's narrator immediately exclaims, "Test baby!" at the end of the scuffle. However, it was still too real for many parents. Others complained that it scared their young children who were watching the game, eventually leading the company to apologize.

11. Chevrolet Bear Commercial

Of all of the commercials included in this list, the Chevrolet Bear commercial is probably the one where the source of offense is hardest to spot. It was the first of a series of "real people, not actors" commercials put out by the auto manufacturing giant. The commercial begins with this caption appearing on the screen, followed by some awkward small talk about what the "real people" think about steel vs aluminum. They're then directed to feel two cages, one made of each of the aforementioned materials. After this, they're told that a Grizzly bear is about to be released into the room and that they have to take cover in one of the cages. Shocked, the do so, with all of them rushing to the steel cage. This followed by remarks about how glad they were to have chosen steel over aluminum, followed by comments by the people in charge about the superiority of the former over the latter.

So why was this commercial offensive and what made it a source of controversy? The story is a kind of choppy and vague one. As it turns out, most of the participants were actually trained professionals, with only some of the "real people" actually being brought into the situation cold. This was enough to get some people a bit peeved. The strongest outrage wasn't from the general public, but rather some of Chevrolet's competitors (most notably Ford) who manufacture trucks with aluminum frames. The competition asserts that the claims of steel over aluminum were thinly veiled cheap shots that were loose with the facts at best. This led to quite a bit of bad blood between some of the world's biggest automobile producers, ultimately leading Chevrolet to pull the plug on the campaign.

12. German Edeka Feigned Death Christmas Commercial

If you're not familiar with Edeka, they're a prominent grocery store chain in Germany. One of their commercials drew the ire of many viewers for toying with their emotions. Others allege that they were using a serious national tragedy to promote their brand, but we'll get to that in due time. This commercial is actually somewhat similar in premise to Neptune Cooking Oil Tet advertisement featured in our classic holiday commercials blog post. While both ultimately have happy endings, they're very sad for the vast majority of their running time. The Edeka commercial goes in a decidedly darker direction than the Neptune Oil ad, which is sort of an accomplishment, depending on how you look at it.

In 2015, Edeka aired a Christmas commercial that focused on a lonely old man. He is going about the motions of preparing for Christmas, only to be phoned by his children with the news that they won't be coming. He then sadly eats dinner alone. After this, we see a montage of scenes of his children and grandchildren in various locations. Some of these scenes consist of grim news being delivered in hospitals, others depict distressing phone calls, and yet another shows a woman opening a sympathy card. Eventually, the children and grandchildren tearfully gather together at the family patriarch's home. They're confused when they see a table set for a lavish dinner. The elderly man then walks into the kitchen, revealing he had faked his death. At first, his children look shocked and almost angry after he says, "How else could I have brought you all here together?" The emotion quickly shifts to pure joy as everyone rushes to embrace the elderly man who then happily sits down to dinner with his loved ones. The commercial ends by displaying a phrase that translates to, "Time to come home.

While this commercial displays an important message, the delivery isn't handled so well. This problem is underscored when considering the fact that loneliness among the elderly is becoming an increasingly large societal problem in many parts of Europe, extending to the point of suicide in some cases. Some viewers felt that to prey on this tragedy to sell groceries was in poor taste. Others felt the message was genuine and real, especially given the fact that the store does not mention any of its items, or even itself until showing their logo at the very end.

13. Gillette "Toxic Masculinity" Commercial

We've already discussed a few commercials that managed to offend many women. However, to show that advertising gone wrong can be an equal opportunity offender, we'll have a little discussion about the Gillette "Toxic Masculinity" commercial. This is yet another commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, with this one taking place just this year. In the ad, a litany of scenes are displayed of men mistreating women and boys mistreating girls. This is displayed among news clips highlighting the #metoo movement and recent sexual abuse scandals. As this goes on, the commercial speaks, or more accurately preaches, directly to men. It lambastes men for being aggressive, violent, and condescending, then asserting that it was all wiped away by excuses in the past, but now it's too late and there's "no going back."

Before going any further, we want to make one thing perfectly clear. We are firmly against abuse in any form, against any person. We're also against anyone worsening an already sickening deed by laughing it off with a trite excuse. With this said, the reason why many men were offended by this ad is that it had a very accusatory, lecturing type of tone, more or less delivering the message that all men are guilty, or at the very least, guilty by gender affiliation. The commercial then goes on to show men performing noble acts, mostly in the form of stopping other men from committing evil ones. Others also have stated that nearly all of the negative acts are shown being committed by white men, raising some cries of racism. Again, this is a commercial with something important to say and an important values to come away with. Unfortunately, this is another where the message is delivered in so poorly of a way that the perceived negative aspects seem as though they'll ultimately be what the commercial is remembered for.

14. Spanish Mother's Day Commercial by Desigual

So now we've talked about controversial commercials that have offended women, men, children, domestic violence victims, racial groups, elderly people, oppressed cultural groups, and even truck manufacturers. At this point, it only seems right that we present a commercial that provides content sufficient to offend just about anyone. After all of the division, we can all come together to pan the next commercial, which is in such poor taste that we can all agree it's just plain wrong. For this, we have Spanish fashion design company Desigual and its Mother's Day commercial to thank.

The bond between mother and child is stronger than any other. That's why Mother's Day is such an important event across so many cultures and nations around the world. It's a day for celebrating the wonderful women that our mothers and grandmothers are and all they have done for us. It's also an important day for first-time mothers who are beginning a brand new and arguably the most important chapter of their lives. That's why a commercial as tasteless, trashy, and offensive as the one shown in the video below this paragraph is just plain repugnant. We aren't going to claim neutrality on this one. In the ad, a young woman in a skimpy dress is dancing around in front of a mirror. During this, she picks up a pillow and slides it under her dress to simulate the look of pregnancy, then pushes it out to represent birth. Upping the ante, she then opens a container of condoms, pierces them, and heads out. The implication is that she's out to become a mother in a rather dishonest and vulgar fashion. The commercial concludes with the line, "La vida es chula" or in English, "Life is cool." Not much else to say.

15. Scary and Disturbing PSAs from the UK

We'll end the list with a compilation of 50 Public Service Announcements from England. UK PSAs tend to be much more graphic, extreme, and disturbing than the ones seen here in the USA and Canada. Maybe that's a good thing, since it's better to be shocked or scared by seeing the potential results of a poor choice than being blissfully ignorant and then LIVING the results of said poor choices. Sometimes sugarcoating an important warning can make the whole thing seem less serious and can render the warning useless. 

We must warn you that the following video, put together by YouTube user HelloImAPizza, contains some service advertisements that, while well-intentioned, are very hard to watch. Some may confuse you, some may scare you, some may shock you, and some are downright heartbreaking. These commercials are given a scariness factor of 0-10, with the least scary PSAs showing first, leading up to the most terrifying ones. Different people may be triggered by different things, so we'll warn you of the following. These commercials contain recurring themes of drunk driving, fires, electrocution, animal abuse, AIDS, neglect, abuse, and graphic violence. If any of these things may be traumatic for you, we encourage you to skip watching these commercials.

That rounds out our list for 15 of the most weird and contentious television commercial advertisements of all time. Were any of these ones you'd never seen before? Are there some you feel should be on the list that weren't included? Get in touch with us and let us know - we'd love to hear your thoughts!

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