Ten Out-of-Touch & Scandalous Advertisements from the 21st Century

10 Marketing Scandals of the 21st Century
Scott Kalapos on Aug 1, 2023

Not all business promotions end up being a hit. Some simply miss the mark, others are poorly planned, and still others can be a victim of timing and other circumstances. However, there are many cases throughout advertising history where companies have whiffed in a much bigger way than any of the above. Today, we're going to share ten examples of advertising gone wrong. Among these examples, you'll see cases of false advertising, tone-deaf virtue signaling, and even sickening jokes that reduce domestic violence to a punch line. We've already covered mistakes turned out for the best and corporate rivalries where companies have taken on each other. Now let's take a look at companies that had to scrap in the court of public opinion.

Let's get started with our list of ten of the worst advertising offenses.

1. Dannon - Activia Yogurt

In 2009, Dannon began promoting its Activia yogurt line and its DanActive dairy beverages as products that could go a long way in improving the health of consumers. This campaign, most famously featuring television spots with actress Jamie Lee Curtis, boasted that Dannon's yogurt and dairy drinks could both strengthen the immune system and regulate digestion. Similar claims were included on product labels and packaging.

Rather than simply stating that their products could bring benefits in the areas of immune and digestive health, Dannon claimed that these benefits were "scientifically" and "clinically" proven to be true. Consumers took these claims seriously, especially since Activia yogurt was selling for a price approximately 30% higher than that of its competitors. When chronic digestive illness sufferers didn't get the relief Dannon guaranteed, they were understandably upset. Many complaints were made, and Dannon ultimately was subject to a $21 million fine from the FTC and a $35 million class action suit. That's a total of $56 million in damages brought about by Dannon's dishonesty.

2.  Reebok - Easy Tone Shoes

Another case of false advertising can be studied when looking at the story of Reebok's Easy Tone shoes. Coming in running shoe, walking shoe, and flip-flop forms, these products were marketed as a revolution in fitness footwear. Reebok's advertisements claimed that walking in these shoes would be a workout in and of itself, as doing so could help to tone the calves, hamstrings, and glutes. In and of itself, that did not constitute false advertising. The trouble began when Reebok started getting specific with just how much of a benefit these shoes could offer.

In their advertisements, Reebok stated that their shoes were proven to tone calves and hamstrings up to 11% more than those offered by the competition, while toning glutes up to 28% more. When investigated, it was determined that there was insufficient evidence to back these claims. While Reebok stood by their assertion that their Easy Tone shoes offered significant benefits, they still ended up being hit with a $25 million fine. A significant amount of viewers also took exception to the content of the Easy Tone television commercials, feeling that the imagery was exploiting the bodies of women and misogynistic in nature. It's a little bit hard for us to disagree.

3. Red Bull - It doesn’t actually give you wings

The last advertising scandal we'll cover that involves false advertising concerns Red Bull energy drinks. For many years, their commercials have included the tagline "Red Bull gives you wings". In addition to this, 2013 advertisements were making claims that drinking a can of Red Bull would provide superior benefits to drinking a cup of coffee or taking a caffeine pill. On the whole, Red Bull's advertising tended to exaggerate the benefits the drink could bring toward those seeking to improve their mental focus and physical reaction speed.

They were eventually taken to court for all of this and faced what amounted to a $13 million fine. Red Bull stood by their statements, saying that they only settled to avoid the financial and time costs that would have been generated by extensive litigation. Anyone who had consumed a Red Bull product within the past 10 years was offered $15 worth of Red Bull merchandise. Hilariously enough (for everyone other than Red Bull), the fact that the energy drink could not physically produce wings in humans was part of the reasoning behind the penalty they faced. 

4. Reese's Pieces - Love Child

In 1982, a brilliant marketing move was made when the Hersey Company opted to have their Reese's Pieces included in the movie E.T. after Mars declined to have their M&Ms shown in the film. 30 years later, in 2012, a much less brilliant marketing decision was made when the "Love Child" advertisement for Reese's Pieces was aired. This ad was met with a good deal of surprise, confusion, and disgust.

This television commercial relied heavily on gross-out and shock tactics. In the ad, a woman is giving birth while her husband stands beside her. After a final push, a healthy, bouncing, gigantic piece of candy was brought into the world. The enormous orange Reese's Piece bawls in typical baby fashion as it is born, slapped by the doctor, and handed to its parents. The face of the candy piece is disturbing enough, but even more disturbing is the torrent of Reese's Pieces that rains down after the umbilical cord is cut. The attending nurse then ups the ante by eating one.

After eating the candy, the nurse cheerfully remarks, "peanut butter!". The father looks a bit concerned over this remark. His concern grows quite a bit more when another man, ostensibly the human embodiment of peanut butter, walks in with a teddy bear. He asks how his little peanut butter baby is doing, implying that he is the actual father. After this exchange, a voiceover accompanied by text says, "Birth the peanut butter! Taste the peanut butter!"

5. McDonald's - Socially Distanced Golden Arches

There are few people alive today who do not remember the constant cues to socially distance that were issued during the height of COVID-19. Much of this was done with good intent and was generally understood to be necessary. However, McDonald's engaged in some branding tactics during this time that didn't quite meet with its desired reaction.

In Brazil, McDonald's took to its Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts to display a new temporary logo that showed the iconic Golden Arches spread apart. This was accompanied by a message that stated that we must all stay separated for the moment so that we could forever be together. Many saw this as next-level virtue signaling and an overall disingenuous tactic that was done for public praise.

Others people were offended by the fact that McDonald's was choosing to put out this message while not offering better pay to their essential workers. The latter was sparked by the UK division of McDonald's announcing just two weeks earlier that all locations were going to temporarily close, with every employee guaranteed to be paid the full amount they would have received if they had continued working.

6. Burger King - Google Home Gaffe

Burger King found itself on the wrong side of the advertising turf in 2017 when it rolled out a commercial that was designed to interact with Google Home devices. These television ads, which were for the famous Whopper, contained audio that was designed to activate Google Voice controlled devices.

The spot stated that its 15 second running time wasn't long enough to describe all of the fresh and delicious ingredients that go into a Whopper. Therefore, it ended with by saying, "Ok Google, what is the Whopper burger?" Google Home devices would respond to this by reading aloud the Wikipedia article about the Whopper. This proved a bad idea, as online vandals quickly inserted false claims into the open-source encyclopedia, going as far to say that the Whopper included cyanide and that it was the worst hamburger sold by the chain.

Shortly after the commercial was uploaded to YouTube, Google Home devices began to block the audio from the ad. Google did not comment on this, aside from to make it clear that they had not collaborated in Burger King's caper. While some saw humor in the story, others were disturbed, feeling that Burger King had been too aggressive and invasive with its advertising by having a direct effect within their homes.

7. Haciendo - Joking About Jonestown

For those who are unfamiliar with it, Hacienda is a chain of Mexican style restaurants that has a fairly large presence in the state of Indiana. It's similar to a chain like Chili's offering Tex/Mex cuisine in addition to a large assortment of alcoholic beverages in its bar areas. In 2011, Haciendo put up a billboard in South Bend, Indiana, that had many offended residents doing a double take.

The billboard featured a picture of a margarita in the lower left corner, with a caption reading "to die for" immediately to the right. To the right of this was the Hacienda logo. If this was all that the billboard contained, there likely wouldn't have been much controversy. However, printed above the aforementioned imagery were the words "We're like a cult, but with better Kool Aid".

"Drinking the Kool Aid" is a phrase that references the mass suicide that took place in the late 1970s in which 912 members of the Jonestown cult perished. Something like this is obviously no laughing matter. The public was not amused, and they let Hacienda know this in no uncertain terms. The company issued an apology and quickly took the billboard down. The apology wasn't well-received, as the company declared that it only wanted to be noticed and didn't wish to be controversial or edgy. We're not buying it.

8. BP - Poorly Executed Oil Spill Apology

Oil industry giant British Petroleum (BP) had a disaster on its hands when one of its oil rigs exploded on April 20, 2010. Located near the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, the damaged rig led to 11 employee deaths as well as the largest oil spill in American history. Millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and washed up on shores in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.

In addition to the loss of human life, this oil spill also caused a great deal of environmental damage and killed several marine animals and shorebirds. Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, was a bit insensitive in his reactions, stating that he just "wanted to get [his] life back" and downplaying the severity of the spill by noting that due to the immense size of the Gulf of Mexico, the amount of oil spilled, proportionally, was tiny.

These remarks were met with some well-justified public outrage. In an attempt at PR damage control, BP released a television commercial in which Hayward apologized to the public. This ad featured a montage of images of workers engaging in efforts to clean up beaches and help affected animals. However, the beaches shown were in a much more pristine state than many of the beach areas that had been affected. Additionally, the bird who was shown being bathed was mostly clean, while none of the thousands who were still covered in oil were shown. Many people stated that they'd rather see action than an apology and felt that Hayward's words were incredibly empty, considering his prior remarks.

9.  Oikos - Domestic Violence is Funny?

Oikos yogurt stirred up some controversy by airing a television commercial that seemed to make light of domestic violence. The Oikos commercial, which was entitled "The Tease", aired during Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. In it, actor John Stamos is eating Oikos yogurt alongside a woman who appears to be portrayed as his wife. The pair are spoon-feeding each other yogurt, though Stamos keeps pulling the spoon away in a teasing manner.

The woman's reaction to the yogurt tease was a bit more than over-the-top. She violently headbutts Stamos, sending him to the floor. At the end of the ad, he gets up and smiles weakly. This is followed by the woman staring at him in anger and faking another headbutt. A terrified Stamos then sinks back to the floor.

Needless to say, this commercial, and particularly its ending, makes light of the atrocities committed by perpetrators of domestic violence and the immense suffering of its victims. There's absolutely nothing funny about that. Regardless of the yogurt's flavor, Oikos left a bad taste in everyone's mouth with this one.

10. T-Mobile - Misandristic Messages

The final advertising scandal we'll address in this article concerns a T-Mobile commercial that hit the airwaves during Super Bowl XLIX in 2015. Misandry ran deeply in this ad, which featured celebrities Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman. In the ad, Handler and Silverman are conversing by phone. They appear in several bizarre settings, stopping in each to marvel at how great the T-Mobile reception is in their current location.

The tone of the commercial suddenly breaks when Silverman is shown in what she refers to as an underground delivery room. After stating that her phone reception is great, Silverman hands a newborn child to its parents. As she does so, she flippantly remarks, "Sorry, it's a boy." When the announcement is made, the mother's face immediately switches from one of joy to one of utter disappointment and disgust.

The anti-male sentiment expressed in this ad is beyond disgusting, as it devalues a child simply because of his gender. What made it stand out, even more, was the fact that during the same Super Bowl, anti-sexism ads aired, most notably one that explains the toxicity of the phrase "throw like a girl". Many parents were offended and concerned that the T-Mobile commercial could have a very negative impact on the self-esteem of their sons. Some people tried to make the argument that this was justified by misogyny they've seen in other advertisements. Still, at the end of the day, an eye for an eye makes the world go blind and no form of discrimination should ever be lauded.

We've now reached the end of our exploration of some of the more notable advertising scandals of the 21st century. We hope you had fun reading this and found the information we've provided to be useful. Want to see some more offenders? Take a look at our post covering weird & controversial TV commercials.

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