10 of the Worst Corporate Promotional Events in History

Ten Most Badly Failed Product Promotions of All Time
Scott Kalapos on Apr 20, 2018

Promoting your business and its products is a good thing, right? Well, we sure hope so, being that we're in the promotional products industry. Most of the time, when a company plans a promotional event, there's a lot of careful planning, lots of discussions and debates on how to make it a success, and ultimately, an event that goes over fairly well.

Of course, there are times where things go off the rails for a variety of reasons, and this can end up being expensive and downright embarrassing. The good news is that if you're a relatively small or even mid-sized business, your blunders will be quickly forgotten by the public. The big guys aren't so lucky. When famous corporations hit the blooper reels, their blunders tend to stay on them eternally.

Today, we'll be discussing ten of the worst promotions and promotional events events of all time. Read on, laugh (in some cases), and most importantly, learn from the mistakes of the big business movers and shakers.

10. LG2 "G In the Cloud" Launch Event in South Korea

We'll quite literally start our list out with a bang, or to be more accurate, a whole lot of banging. In 2013, LG was rolling out its new LG2 smartphone and the mobile giant was finding ways to brew up excitement and awareness around the world. Many events successful events were coordinated as the company introduced it. Sadly it's, the marketing mistakes that history tends to remember.

This ill-fated smartphone campaign event was dubbed "G in the Cloud" and took place in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. LG stated that they'd be releasing 100 coupons at this event that would guarantee those who received them a free LG2 smartphone. Predictably enough, this stirred up a great degree of public interest and an overwhelming amount of attendees showed up.

This is where the success stopped, though when you learn the full story, you'll realized how doomed this was from the beginning to be one of the all-time worst marketing fails. Below is a quick video recap of the whole debacle.

LG wanted to send their coupons up into the sky to capitalized on the whole "cloud" concept of the event. Their not-so-wise decision was to do this by way of sending up 100 balloons into the air, each of which held a coupon inside.

For whatever reason, they were expecting the people in attendance to hang around and patiently wait for the balloons to drift back to the ground. That's not quite how things worked out. Instead, many people brought BB guns to the event and once the balloons were released, they opened fire.

Over 20 people were injured by stray BBs, and the PR nightmare was compounded by the fact that there were only 20 security guards on hand. Typically, a combination of more than 100 police officers and security guards attend events of this size. It ended quite embarrassingly for LG, and they ended up being stuck with quite a few medical bills on their hands.

As an interesting side note, one person chose to bring a spear rather than a BB gun, but nobody seems to have been harpooned.

9. McDonald's 1984 Olympic Scratch-Off Giveaway Campaign

1984 was not a particularly good year for McDonald's. In January, the Golden Arches lost their beloved founder when Ray Kroc died at the age of 81. In July, there was tragedy on a large scale during the McDonald's Massacre (opens in a new window) in the San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego. These tragedies make the pain of the hardcore failure of the McDonald's 1984 Olympics promotion pale in comparison, but as promotional trainwrecks go, this marketing failure is still one for the record books.

In 1984, the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles, California. Athletes at home were filled with American pride, as were their families and American sports fans. Along with Coca-Cola and Mars/M&Ms, McDonald's was one of the three official flagship corporations of the 1984 Olympics.

McDonald's executives quickly had dollar signs in their eyes and rolled out the now-infamous "We Win, You Win" campaign. Basically, this consisted of scratch off tickets being attached to every Big Mac, large Coke, or large order of fries at participating restaurants. Users would scratch off the coating to reveal an Olympic event.

As the title of the promotion would imply, any time the Americans won an event, the consumer could come back to redeem their ticket and get a second Big Mac, Coke, or large fry for free. Here's a commercial that tells you the score.

The concept would seem to be an ingenious one. Customers would be packing the restaurants and then sitting glued to their TV sets, watching the olympics and hoping for a delicious victory. There was just one problem. In 1980, the Olympics were held in Moscow and due to the Cold War, the USA boycotted the games. In retaliation, the USSR and several Eastern European nations behind the Iron Curtain boycotted the '84 games.

This led to a much smaller field of competition, and many of the events in which the people from the non-participating nations usually dominated were now much more in reach for the USA. All told, the USA won 174 medals, with 83 of them being gold. 

The public wasn't sympathetic to McDonald's and its short-sighted promotional campaign. Free meals were chowed down by the thousands, and McDonald's took quite a heavy hit that's since been parodied by many pop culture icons.

One would expect that hosting the Olympics would be a financial boon to a city, but in reality, the costs are so high that they've always operated at a loss, with just one exception. As cruel irony would have it, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games were the only ones on which the host city ever turned a profit, which just served to poor a little more salt into poor Ronald's wounds.

8. Oprah and the Great KFC Coupon Catastrophe

Both Oprah Winfrey and Kentucky Fried Chicken have a huge legion of fans. That's why when KFC a new, semi-healthy grilled chicken sandwich in 2009, it seemed like a great idea to have Oprah promote it. On an episode of her talk show, she informed her fans about special coupons that could be downloaded by her fans.

These coupons would entitle each user to two free grilled chicken sandwiches at participating locations. There were some warnings and misgivings about the ramifications of such a large promotional deal, but KFC chose to ignore them.

Predictably, this didn't have good results for the fast-food giant, as they quickly ran out of products and had angry customers on their hands who were certainly not chickens when it came to standing up for their culinary rights. It turns out the target audience was a bit too large and enthusiastic for this new campaign.

Here's a video from 2009 when the promotion was in its earliest days and had yet to take its ugliest turns:

While the fellow in this video ran into some inconvenience, things would become much worse than just inconvenient in the coming days. Customers became increasingly angry, with some refusing to leave the drive-through lanes without their complementary sandwiches, with still others taking it out on the cashiers and threatening violence.

Things even escalated to the point of arranged protests taking place over what was seen as a bait and switch on the part of KFC. Still other protests perpetrated by PETA began to pop up, blasting the fast-food chain for the way the chickens used in its offerings were treated. With Oprah having been a spokesperson for PETA at one point, the whole thing just became a tangled, ugly mess. Still, it does speak to Oprah's immense brand value.

7. Volvo's Not-So-Safe Car Safety Demo

In May of 2015, Volvo's driver-assistance model XC60 was just hitting the scene. This driver assistance enhanced car had many features that were designed to make the cars more safe, but were not designed with the intention of drivers attempting to go into auto-pilot mode.

One Volvo dealership owner didn't seem to realize this, and he organized a large promotional demonstration with much fanfare to attract users to his dealership to see the new features in action. Once a large crowd had assembled, the dealer wanted to show that if the car came up against a large mass of objects or items, it would come to a halt.

Unfortunately, when the dealer attempted to show this feature off, the car did not stop as planned. It initially rolled slowly backward, but then shot ahead, ending up striking some of the people in attendance. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured, but it was a definite public relations black eye for Volvo to deal with and is one of their biggest marketing gaffes to date.

Volvo was upset, and understandably so. First of all, this demonstration was not an event sanctioned by corporate headquarters. Secondly, the driver assist technology was never intended to be used in the way the dealer in this case had attempted.

The new technology, which was named "City Safety" was designed to prevent the collision of vehicles operating closely under low rates of speed, such as at stop signs or red lights. There actually was an optional feature to detect pedestrians as well, but the car used in this promotional event was not equipped with it.

Volvo disavowed the demonstration, saying that it never should have been attempted as their design still intends for users to be in control. Therefore, even in a vehicle with the pedestrian detection system, if a driver floors it, the car will still careen forward. Some bad press was inevitable though, making this event one the company will always remember for all the wrong reasons.

6. American Airlines - Fly Free for Life

The economic recession of the late 1970s and very early 1980s put a big hurt on nearly any company involved in the transportation industry. Being more than aware of this, American Airlines decided to create special passes for extremely loyal (and high-spending) customers.

In 1981, they came out with special passes that would allow their purchasers free first class tickets for life if they sprang for the $250,000 price tag. An additional $150,000 would buy lifetime tickets for a travel companion as well. Now this wasn't exactly cheap - it was about the equivalent of $700,000 in today's money. American Airlines expected this to be a promotion that would only attract extremely wealthy CEOs and their ilk as an extravagant corporate gift.

To their chagrin, it wasn't just corporate bigwigs who wanted in on the free flights. Wealthy celebrities and adept investors also jumped on this plan, and it ended up generating a huge loss. In hindsight, there were some unrealistic expectations behind this marketing mistake.

Lottery & lawsuit winners also jumped on this opportunity, and many people were soon engaging in some very intense globetrotting on the house. In addition to flying for free, these passengers also gained loyalty miles for every trip they took, digging an even bigger hole. It certainly managed to grab attention, but was a bad marketing move beyond words.

In 2007 (yeah, it took that long), AA started some serious investigating to see if anyone was abusing their program. In the end, only one passenger ended up having his pass revoked, as he was discovered to have obtained tickets for fictitious companions, allegedly so that his bags could travel for free in the seat next to him.

5. Snapple and the Great Popsicle Meltdown of 2005

Anyone who is old enough to remember the 1990s surely remembers Snapple's enormous role as a pillar of pop culture. By the turn of the century, things had cooled down a bit, but the beverage giant was still going strong.

In an attempt to once again be in the spotlight and regrow some of its faded celebrity status, Snapple decided to stage a rather bizarre promotional event in Manhattan on June 21, 2005, which was the first day of summer. The idea was to challenge the heat by creating and showing off the world's largest-ever popsicle. The enormous kiwi-strawberry flavored concoction was composed, cooled, and shipped out a facility in New Jersey and taken to New York by a modified flatbed truck.

For a visual depiction of the fruity monstrosity, you can skip ahead to the 2:46 mark in the video below. Alternately, you can watch the full five minute video and pick up a few interesting tidbits of trivia to boot.

The potential record-breaking popsicle weighed in at 35,000 lbs and was so large that it was relying on the help of a crane to pull it into a fully upright position. Maybe somebody should've told the powers that be at Snapple to try this out as a springtime promotional event instead, as the summer heat proved to be too much for the popsicle, which began to melt and splash a sticky, sweet wave throughout 17th Street. The mess was so bad that several fire department units had to be called in to clean up the mess, clear the streets, and divert the defeated frosty treat into the sewers.

As embarrassing as bad this bad marketing campaign was for Snapple, it would have, at least in a sense, been a failure no matter what. To discourage waste, the Guinness Book of World Records now requires any records in the "largest food" category to be either purchased or donated and then consumed in full.

4. Disco Demolition Night

In 1979, the Chicago White Sox were experiencing a very poor season. Michael Veeck, who was the organization's owner at the time, was the consummate showman and wanted to continue to draw in crowds and provide them with a great show, even if it wasn't one put on by his baseball players. It was when trying to come up with an over-the-top idea to make this happen that Veeck came into contact with Steven Dahl, a disco-hating shock-jock who worked at Chicago's WLVP 97.9 radio station.

While disco was still wildly popular at the time, a growing number of metal and hard rock fans were coming together and rallying behind the "Disco Sucks" war cry. Dahl, who had been fired from the previous station he'd worked with after it switched to an all-disco format, had put together a slipshod army of anti-disco activists called the Insane Coho Lips. The group was gaining traction throughout the Midwest and had developed a reputation for disrupting many a disco event. 

When Veeck and Dahl put their heads together, the fruit conceived was called "Disco Demolition Night". The idea was to have fans come to the stadium, buy tickets, and pay an additional 98 cents to drop off a vinyl disco record that would be deposited into a box and blown up on the outfield grass between the double-header scheduled between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers on July 12, 1979. The results were beyond chaotic, as you'll see in the video clip below:

While there was a worry that the event would be a failure due to few people showing up, those fears were soon washed away when a crowd over ten times the size of the season average showed up. The stands were thick with the smell of marijuana smoke by the time the Sox lost the first game by a score of 4-1.

Shortly afterward, Dahl took to the field in an army costume, accompanied by Lorelei, a famous model among the Chicago scene. When he arrived at his destination, fans threw down debris in support, loudly chanting their disdain for disco. As promised, Dahl provided the detonation, blowing the disco albums into smithereens.

The crowd became a bit overzealous and began to storm the field, with a high degree of weed-induced dementia taking place. Security had to block the exits so outside rioters couldn't get in, but this kept well-behaved attendees who wanted flee unable to get out.

Ultimately, so much damage was done to the field by the explosion and fan destruction that game 2 of the doubleheader had to be forfeited, giving the Tigers a sweep. This makes it one of the biggest marketing fails in sports history.

3. 10 Cent Beer Night

If you think Disco Demolition Night was a promotional event gone wrong, 1974's 10 Cent Beer Night makes it look like a masterpiece by comparison. Hosted by the Cleveland Indians at old Cleveland Stadium on June 4, 1974, this event provided what its name promised. For 10 cents apiece, fans could buy 6 12 oz servings of beer at a time, with no limit on how many times they could go through the line.

While this would seem enough of a hare-brained scheme already, it gets even worse when you take into account that the Indians were playing the Texas Rangers that night, a team with whom they then had a very intense and very angry rivalry. Just two weeks before, the teams had squared off in an uncommonly violent bench clearing brawl. This promotional event had chaos written all over it from the get-go, as the following video displays:

Once the game was underway, the Rangers jumped out to an early lead. Fans were already chugging down the suds at heroic rates, and the drunken antics were starting to build. At one point, a Cleveland player hit a scalding line drive which caught the Rangers' pitcher right in the stomach, eliciting an ovation from the increasingly surly crowd. A close play at third base where a Rangers' player was called safe after severely spiking the Indians' third baseman turned the heat up another few notches.

Finally, during the bottom of the 9th inning, the score was tied and Cleveland had two runners on base. Leron Lee, the same player who hit aforementioned line drive was hit by a pitch and mass chaos ensued. Drunken fans stormed the field, with streaking, flashing, and mooning being carried out by fans of both sexes.

Eventually, one fan tried to swipe the cap of a Ranger's player but stumbled in the attempt. While he was untouched, from the stands it was mistakenly believed that a Ranger had shoved him, and the lewdness quickly switched to violence. The heavily intoxicated crowd ran out to attack the Texas players, who had no choice but to try to defend themselves via swinging their bats.

Setting their differences aside, the Indians stormed the field, also armed with bats, to protect Texas from the furious mob. Fans desecrated the stadium, even going as far as to rip seats out from the stands and throw them on the field. The game ended in a forfeit, with several players, fans, and police offers sustaining injuries, leaving it known as one of the baddest of bad marketing campaigns.

2. Jagermeister's Pool Party

In 2013, Jagermeister held a huge promotional party event in the Mexican city of Leon in an effort to win over a horde of enthusiastic young customers. Music was blasting, bottles were draining, and a great time was being had by all. While many swimmers were living it up in an oversize swimming pool, Jagermeister's event planners decided to kick things up a notch visually by adding liquid nitrogen to the pool to create the same smoky, cloudy dry ice effect that's often seen at rock concerts.

The only problem is that they didn't stop to think of how dangerous this was, as the liquid nitrogen rendered the swimmers unable to breathe. Many passed out and had to be hospitalized, with one guest falling into a coma. Miraculously, this young man survived, but not without a lot of pain and serious bodily damage. Due to poor thinking and impulsive choices, what should have been a great experience quickly turned into a tragic one.

1. Ford Edsel and E-Day

If ever there were a product whose very name is synonymous with catastrophic failure and mass public rejection, it's the Ford Edsel. In all fairness, it really wasn't a horrible car line, but the extreme lengths its poorly-communicated promotions went to, combined with a lack of proper research made this product roll-out an absolute disaster.

While Ford launched the Edsel on September 4, 1957, which was dubbed "E-Day", Ford had been issuing teasers throughout the media for over a full year beforehand. It was said to be the car of the future and everyone was excited to see it, though in all advertisements and promotions prior to E-Day, the views of the cars were always obscured and only the slightest of hints were dropped.

While many remember the Edsel of being a single car, it was actually intended to be a sub-brand of Ford, similar in principle to Mercury and Lincoln. When the cars were released, there was a lot of disappointment and confusion, as you'll see in the following video:

While they were introduced as the cars of the future, most Edsel models were quite similar to existing Ford automobiles, with some minor innovations, mainly revolving around the instrument panel. These cars featured the first dome style speedometers, extensive dashboard information gauges, auto-lubrication, and automatic gear shift buttons that were located in the middle of the steering wheel.

Since this location was (and still is) usually where the horn was located, many irritated drivers wishing to blare their horns in traffic unintentionally shifted gears, with understandably poor results.

One of the fundamental flaws with the Edsel line of cars was that it confused consumers. They were randomly priced in different ranges and it was hard to determine if they were meant to be economy, mid-range, or luxury cars. Their innovative features were impressive, but undesired.

While some assert that Edsels were just the right car at the wrong time, it all comes down to the fact that Ford simply did not properly conduct their marketing research properly. Rather than giving the public what they said they wanted, Ford chose to give the public what it thought they wanted, and therein existed the undoing of the Edsel.

Terribly Failed Marketing Campaigns & Events - Conclusion

What lesson can one come away with from reading all of these horribly failed promotional events & publicity stunts? The answer is simple: plan well in advance, plan realistically, and make sure you know what your audience wants and that you can deliver it. By acting impulsively, failing to conduct proper research, acting without caution & consideration, and either ignoring advice or not seeking it, several potential windfalls turned into downfalls.

What's your take on our list of the top ten most poorly executed promotions of the past century? Are there any worse offenders we left out? Did you learn anything new or have additional information or advice to inject into our little sermon? We're interested in hearing from you, so leave us a comment here or on Facebook. After all, if we're to practice what we preach, we need to listen to your thoughts and feelings to continue to provide you with the best possible promotional products!

 

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