9 Advertising & Promotional Campaigns Gone Awry

Nine Notoriously Problematic Promotions
Scott Kalapos on May 25, 2021

At 4AllPromos, we take business promotion and branding seriously. After all, it's in our name. That's why we find it interesting and more than worthwhile to take a look back in time and see some of the biggest mistakes made in advertising. When you know your history, you're less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past. The business world has seen plenty of them over the years. This article will explore nine examples of promotions gone wrong. These aren't just business related, as some veer into politics, technology, and even Muppets... but we'll get to all of that in due time. Along the way, we'll point out some of the key takeaways as to what went wrong and how to avoid such errors in your own branding efforts.

1. Don't Misrepresent Your Employees - NBC's "Proud as a Peacock" Campaign

In the late 1970s, Fred Silverman became President and CEO of the NBC television network. He'd done very well in previous stints running things at ABC and CBS, so NBC was obviously expecting big things. By 1979, NBC had a few hit shows on its hands in the form of Diff'rent Strokes, CHIPS, and Little House on the Prairie. However, much of the network's programming was underperforming and seen as a bit outdated. It was solidly in last place among the "Big Three" of the day. Silverman attempted to draw in some new programming, though shows such as Supertrain and Pink Lady proved expensive and unpopular. This, combined with the cancellation of the planned 1980 Olympics coverage (thanks to the boycott of the Moscow-held games) was putting NBC even further behind the eight ball.

Though things weren't going well, Fred Silverman decided to run the "Proud as a Peacock" campaign. This consisted of a series of theatrical, Broadway-style television commercials promoting the network, essentially trying to show that even if they were down, they weren't out. A theme of pride and joy was included throughout, with "We're Proud!" being the prominent refrain. The trouble is, network employees weren't feeling so prideful. In fact, they were a bit angry with what they saw to be poor management and were feeling a bit resentful. This led to the creation of a parody entitled, "We're Loud" in which NBC employees groused about the network and their grievances with Silverman. In fall of 1980, a copy of this made it to the hands of Don Imus, who played it over the radio on NBC's then-flagship station in New York City. Needless to say, Fred Silverman wasn't happy.

At the end of the day, the main point to take away from this branding fiasco is that you need to be in touch with what your employees are thinking and feeling. When words they don't agree with are put into their mouths, they may speak out in a fashion that could bring negative attention to any brand.

2. Kellogg's - Be Careful When Being Charitable

Sometimes, the best of intentions can have the worst of results. A well-meaning Twitter campaign undertaken by the UK division of Kellogg's in 2013 ended up backfiring in a big way due to some less-than-careful planning. Kellogg's runs a charitable program through which they help to donate and organize free breakfasts in schools for children in underprivileged areas. To spread the word, the company took to Twitter. The tweet that caused the trouble read as follows: "1 RT = 1 Breakfast for a vulnerable child." In this case, "RT" was an abbreviation for "retweet".

Though it is not at all uncommon for organizations to make charitable donations when an online user completes a given action, this one just didn't pass the eye test. Though the intentions were pure, many saw this as Kellogg's using hungry children to gain publicity. The general reaction was not a positive one, with many angry accusations being thrown the cereal giant's way. An official apology soon followed. While Kellogg's was certainly trying to do a good thing, their actions needed some serious re-thinking. This is just one example of why it's so important to stop and think of how any potential public relations action could be perceived by all possible audiences.

While there is no longer footage out there to detail this incident, we've included a video that introduces and explains Kellogg's UK Breakfast Club program.


3. Starbuck's "Race Together" - Limit Politics to the Right Time and Place


This is a pretty recent one. With tensions on just about every subject running high over the past few years, Starbuck's decided it wanted to try to do something in regard to race relations. After trying to figure out how to best achieve this end, Starbuck's CEO Howard Schultz conceived the "Race Together" strategy in 2015. Essentially, this consisted of encouraging baristas to write the phrase on beverage cups when serving them to customers. The goal was to start conversations about race within each coffee house location. As one would likely expect, this didn't go very well.

It wasn't the message Starbuck's sought to deliver that people objected to. Rather, it was the method and forum. Most people don't want to talk politics when standing in already long and slow-moving lines for coffee. Rather, they want to get their orders as quickly as possible and get back to work. Beyond that, many are not comfortable engaging in a sudden and unexpected political dialog with complete strangers. The general reaction was a mix of discomfort and annoyance, with several people accusing Starbuck's of preaching and pandering. This lead to a glut of online parodies and complaints, quickly ending the initiative. Though Starbuck's has expressed wishes to still take part in activism in regard to racial issues, they now see that a much different strategy is required.


4. Quizno's "Spongmokeys" Ads - Don't Be Weird for the Sake of Weird


In the early 00s, business was booming for Quizno's. The sub chain as one of the most rapidly growing fast food chains in the world. Their delicious toasty subs were winning many fans, and locations were steadily popping up in areas where the brand was unknown mere months before. As these successes mounted, the sandwich chain wished to continue capitalizing on the uniqueness factor, as it was a big part of what propelled them in the first place. This extended to their advertising, and resulted in a series of television commercials that some people loved, but the majority of viewers found a bit confusing and disturbing.

If high-pitched, gravelly voices singing, "We love the suuubs, 'cause they are good to us," happens to ring a bell, you probably remember the so-called Spongmonkeys. They were the somewhat disembodied rodent-like creatures who floated at the top of the TV screen while singing the praises of Quizno's in 2003 & 2004. Wearing bowler hats and sporting creepy looking teeth and eyes, these odd critters served as company mascots. People were confused as to what they represented, and there was a general consensus that they were anything but appetizing. Additionally, there was the problem that rodents are generally associated with a lack of cleanliness, which is never a reputation a restaurant wants to build. Still, these commercials were better than the ones featuring a man nursing directly from a wolf, a sight Quizno's provided to TV viewers a year earlier.


5. Volkswagen Clean Diesel Fuel - Don't Lie... Just Don't


German automaker Volkswagen has for generations been the dominant manufacturer of motor vehicles throughout Europe. While they've had success in the USA, they've never had quite the competitive presence here as they have abroad. After years of trying to find a way to capitalize on the American market, VW finally thought they had an in. The goal was to carve out a solid place at the top of the American automotive pyramid by way of appealing to consumers with a commitment toward environmental responsibility. The plan was to achieve this via heavily promoting their diesel fueled engines, touting them as being less harmful to the environment than the gasoline powered engines of their competitors. Considering their success with diesel cars in Europe, Volkswagen hoped to be the first manufacturer to make them really catch on in the USA.

While the above may not sound like such a bad idea, keep reading. We're about to get to where it all went wrong. Volkswagen had developed what came to be known as a "Defeat Device". This was computer technology added into their engines that enabled cars to detect specific conditions that would only take place during emissions testing. The point of this was to make the engine temporarily run below the normal level of power and consequently, release fewer dangerous fumes. However, once the device was deactivated, some engines were putting out more than 40 times the legal limit of environmental pollutants. Ultimately, this was discovered and the public learned that Volkswagen's "clean diesel" was anything but. Word spread around the world and massive lawsuits and legal troubles resulted. Some are still ongoing, and the company has yet to fully recover from the hit to its reputation. The moral of the story? Always tell the truth.


6. Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" Presidential Ad Campaign - Don't Resort to Terrorism


Here's a story of a campaign that's similar to the Quizno's story in that it both worked and didn't at the same time. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was running for re-election against contender Barry Goldwater. Par for the course of the tumultuous 1960s, this campaign had its ugly moments. Quite possibly, none were uglier than a television spot so upsetting that it was only aired a single time. The ad started out innocently enough. In it, a young girl was in a field, happily picking petals off of a daisy as she counted down from 10. Suddenly, a much louder and more somber adult voice drowned her out, taking over the countdown. As the countdown progressed, the camera zoomed in on the girl's eye, before a loud explosion was heard and a mushroom cloud filled the screen.

As the cloud billowed outward, a voice can be heard saying, "These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live or to go into the ashes. We must either love each other, or we must die. Vote for President Lyndon Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high to stay home." After this, text appeared against a black screen, again urging viewers to vote for Johnson on November 3rd. A flood of complaints came in from distraught viewers, and Johnson ordered the ad to be pulled. Some believe this to have been a pre-calculated move. In any case, much of the viewing public was unhappy. Nothing like it had ever been presented before and people were in shock. Children reported nightmares and even adults complained of heavy stress and anxiety. Though some believe it to have been a factor in helping Johnson secure a second term, many people consider it to be the first time that television was employed to communicate a message of terrorism on behalf of a sitting president.


7. Halifax Mortgage & The Wizard of Oz - Don't Confuse Your Audience


This promotional television spot for Halifax Mortgage, a UK-based company, might not seem so bad on the surface. After all, it features characters everyone knows and loves, is very well executed from a cinematic standpoint, and is quite pleasing to the eye. Halifax did succeed in its attempt to produce an artistic, humorous, and memorable commercial. However, it wasn't quite as successful in actually promoting itself or its services. The main thing that this advertisement ended up doing was confusing its audience.

"There's no place like home," is one of the most iconic lines in the history of the big screen. A mortgage is necessary in order for most people to obtain a home. See what they did there? The trouble with this commercial is that the connection between the premise of the commercial and what it intended to advertise was a pretty tenuous one. In the ad, Dorothy, Toto, and her friends from the Land of Oz arrive at the Emerald City. Instead of being greeted by the Wizard, they meet a Halifax representative. After telling the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion how he can help them, the representative sadly tells Dorothy he can't help her because she's too young. He then reminds her of the old heel clicking method. The trouble here is that the company essentially depicts itself as being unable to help the protagonist of the commercial, weakening the overall points the ad was trying to make.


8. Google+ - Create Ads, Not Inconveniences


While most people who were using the internet from around 2011 to 2014 likely remember Google+, there's one thing they probably don't remember: Google promoting their new social media network. Google+ was intended to be the dominant force in the social media market, originally conceived in hopes of wiping out giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately for Google, this new social media platform was confusing to users, offered few notable services, and didn't really provide much to inspire people to join.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the launch of Google+ was the way in which it was introduced to the public. Rather than spending much time advertising their social platform, Google simply required users to open a Google+ profile in order to be able to use nearly any of their other services. Backed into a corner, many people actually did sign up for Google+ so that they could continue to use services such as Gmail and Youtube. This is where the engagement ended for most people, as once they finished signing up, they seldom if ever engaged with their profiles. Though Google+ did introduce the Hangouts app (a video chat app similar to Skype), there just wasn't much to keep annoyed users engaged. In fact, the average user spent a paltry 3 minutes per month on Google+. By the end of the decade and after approximately $585 million spent, Google+ was discontinued.


Bert is Evil - Pay Attention to the Details


When you think of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, you likely think about lessons surrounding friendship, sharing, counting, and the alphabet. What you likely don't think of is terrorism. However, the world saw a different side of Bert in October 2001. Instead of collecting paper clips, obsessing with pigeons, or squabbling with Ernie, the unibrowed yellow Muppet was appearing in pro Bin Laden/Al-Qaeda demonstrations in Bangladesh. Let's back up on this one for just a minute.

To better understand Bert's infamous appearance, some historical context is needed. In the late 1990s, a parody website called "Bert is Evil" was created. This was a humorous website containing text, audio, and image files of Bert doing horrible things and associating with some of history's most evil figures. While it was all in good fun, the Children's Television Workshop wasn't laughing after a Bangladesh-based printer who wasn't familiar with the show was presented with a collage of images. Many of these had anti-American themes mixed with pro-Bin Laden messages. One happened to include a picture of Bert standing alongside the terrorist leader, and this image made its way into some of the posters carried in the demonstration.

The original Bert is Evil website shut down in response to this. However, many sites mirroring its content and adding in some files of their own continued to populate the internet. Though we certainly don't advocate the promotion of terrorism in any way, shape, or form, we also can't imagine that a puppet from a children's television program is going to strike fear into many hearts. Skip ahead to the 7:04 mark in the video below to see the section that addresses this incident.


The nine stories examined in this article can serve as a valuable guide on what NOT to do for anyone hoping to successfully promote a business or organization. Some of these lessons are fairly obvious ones. Still, having them illustrated through real-world examples and seeing the potential repercussions of ignoring them is something we hope will keep them in all mind. We hope you enjoyed this article and as always, we wish to extend an invitation to contact us if you have any comments, questions, or examples you think we should add.


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