Every day we are exposed to advertisements through the television we watch, the billboards we walk past or the commercials we hear on the radio. Some marketing campaigns are incredibly powerful, moving people to tears. Others, not so much.

There have been plenty of tasteless ad and marketing campaigns that have missed the mark and caused damage to the reputation of the brand they are serving. 

Looking at adverts in retrospect is one thing, but some companies have been downright offensive and insensitive to the consumers who buy their products. Taking notes from these mistakes ensures that your brand or business does not commit the same offences and creates meaningful and relevant marketing campaigns.

We’ve compiled eight of the most tasteless marketing campaigns for you to learn from. Let’s consider these offensive advertisements. 

Tasteless marketing campaigns: Video explaining what a marketing campaign is, in simple terms.

Tasteless Marketing Campaigns That Fueled Controversy

1. MSCHF x Lil Nas X ‘Satan Shoes’ Campaign in 2021

While Nike hasn’t done anything wrong, they’re certainly making headlines as one of the most recent tasteless marketing campaigns. Brooklyn art collective MSCHF paired with the rapper Lil Nas X to create ‘Satan Shoes’ causing quite a stir in the media. 

image for 8 most tasteless marketing campaigns

‘Satan Shoes’ were dropped by MSCHF on Monday the 29th of March 2021 to coincide with the launch of Lil Nas X’s new single Montero (Call Me By Your Name). Releasing only 666 pairs, the shoes were made from modified Nike Air Max 97s which sold out in less than a minute being priced at $1,018 per pair. 

The shoe has caused much controversy as it features an inverted cross, a pentagram, and the words ‘Luke 10:18’ which reads “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven”. They also contain a drop of real human blood in the soles. Naturally, this has caused much anger within religious communities. 

Nike has been scrambling to retain their image as they are suffering much criticism from those who don’t realise this isn’t a Nike endorsed campaign. Nike has sued MSCHF for trademark infringement citing the use of the famous ‘swoosh’ could confuse consumers and has already led to public outcry. 

This controversial ad is considered to have been a tasteless marketing campaign by many fundamentalist Christians. One thing is certain: Lil Nas X has major publicity for his new single.

lil nas x holding the satan shoes
Tasteless Marketing Campaigns: MSCHF x Lil Nas X’s collaboration has caused much controversy for its satanic theme. (Image Credit: bbc.co.uk)

2. Trident Gum Advert in 2007

Ran in 2007, the Trident gum advertising campaign was considered an incredibly offensive, bad marketing campaign. With over 500 complaints, it was considered incredibly racist and derailed a £10 million pound campaign run by Cadbury.

The advert was meant to show a black, ‘dub’ poet who was rhyming about the benefits of Trident gum in what appears to be a comedy club. This would have been fine on its own but the advert seemed to rely on some incredibly offensive stereotypes of Caribbean culture with the man rhyming in a strong Jamaican accent.

Cadbury came under scrutiny as it appeared that they were mocking Caribbean people and their culture. The Advertising Standard’s Authority or ASA ruled that the advert wouldn’t be shown again after its original release.

Tasteless Marketing Campaigns: A video of the advertisement from Trident Gum 2007.

3. Protein World ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ in 2015

The bold, bright yellow offensive ad of Protein World’s ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ was in bad taste, loud and hard to ignore. Considered a tasteless marketing campaign, the advert caused much controversy for Protein World for body-shaming women. 

In an incredible statistic found in a survey done by One Pulse, 61% of women who saw the advertisement were meant to feel ashamed of their own bodies. The ASA banned the advert over its misleading health claims with the London mayor Sadiq Khan banning it from the Underground for its unrealistic depiction of women. 

Carlsberg went on to parody the ad and the skyscraper-sized version was removed from Times Square was swiftly removed for its body-shaming properties – a true content marketing mistake. Rightly so, this ad received extensive critique. 

the beach body ready ad featuring a young woman in a bikini
Tasteless Marketing Campaigns: Protein World’s ‘Beach Body Ready Campaign’ caused quite a stir and was criticised for misleading information. (Image Credit: Ad Age)

4. McDonald’s #StaySafeByStayingApart Ad in 2020 

McDonald’s is the fourth most popular dining brand globally but also has the luxury of the drive-thru. In fact, over 70% of McDonald’s business operates this way, which has meant it has been fairly pandemic proof.  

After COVID-19 shook the world, McDonald’s Brazil redesigned their logo to separate the now-iconic golden arches that make the ‘m’. This was meant to represent people staying apart and staying at home. The campaign ran under the #staysafebystayingapart. 

Many consumers found this move to be disingenuous, exploitative, insensitive ad, especially considering McDonald’s continued with operations due to their set-up whereas smaller business owners were having, in some cases, to close up their businesses for good.

An unpopular advert that simply didn’t live up to expectations, it might have had a good concept but the tone was lost in translation. The campaign was replaced with a promotion for delivery and drive-thru options.

the mcdonalds sign with the m separated in a poor ad attempt to support staying apart for covid-19
Tasteless Marketing Campaigns: McDonald’s unpopular separation of the ‘m’ was considered an attempt to exploit the coronavirus pandemic. (Image Credit: Ad Age)

5. Norwegian Cruise Line ‘It’s Time to Break Free’ in 2020 

In a move considered incredibly tone-deaf, Norwegian Cruise Line ran their first advert from March of 2020 under the tagline ‘It’s Time to Break Free’. Taken from the song ‘I want to Break Free’, the advert was meant to convey hope for the future by looking past the confinements of 2020 and into a bright and exciting future.  

While the ethos of reconnecting with people and places seems commendable, the public had experienced a year of much loss and heartache, and the advert seemed to negate the death that had occurred and the sacrifices the public had made to keep each other safe.

Ran the week of Black Friday in November 2020, the advert ran across radio, print, digital, and television. This poorly-timed campaign was considered in poor taste and a really terrible marketing effort. After receiving a lot of backlash, they may rethink their content marketing strategy for 2021. 

an advert for norwegian cruise line depicting a man jumping into a boat with the woman sitting on the side watching him

6. Ryanair ‘Jab and Go’ Advert in 2020

Keeping with the tourism theme, another tasteless marketing campaign that launched in 2020 was Ryanair’s ‘Jab and Go’ campaign. Considered deeply irresponsible, the advert received over 2,370 complaints to the ASA – the third most complained about advert of all time.  

The theme of the advert was to encourage people to book their summer holidays once receiving their vaccinations against the coronavirus. Considered to trivialise the effects of COVID-19 and to be too rash in making claims that people could travel unaffected by the coronavirus in the summer, it seemed to ignore the restrictions and measures that were already in place. 

The ASA ruled that the advert be removed and the whole campaign was derailed after featuring heavy criticism on social media. We can hope that Ryanair will compile a new social media strategy for the new year. 

advert for ryan air promoting their jab and go flight offers
Tasteless Marketing Campaigns: Ryanair’s ill conceived advert missed the mark by assuming normalcy in travel would return in 2021’s summer period. Picture of Ryanair’s advertisement stating ‘Jab & Go’. (Image Credit: sky.com)

7. Groupon Tibet Commercial in 2011

Racist, offensive, and lacking in empathy Groupon’s 2011 commercial for the Superbowl is considered one of the most tasteless marketing campaigns of all time. Groupon spent $2 million dollars on a terrible depiction of the political unrest in Tibet.  

The advert featured Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton as he sat down to eat a cheap, Tibetan curry, made possible by Groupon. While Tibet was experiencing civil unrest and harsh treatment from China, the advert gleefully acknowledges that but centres in on how good their fish curry is. 

Hopefully, Groupon has learned not to take advantage of sensitive, cultural situations and tailor their ads to reflect less on the current political climate of certain countries.

Tasteless Advertising Campaigns: Video from Youtube of the Groupon Tibet commercial.

8. World Wildlife Fund 9/11 Advert in 2009

Of all the organisations to cause offence, the one you would least expect is the World Wildlife Fund or WWF. In 2009, they ran an advertising campaign that caused great offence to those who saw it, comparing the Asian Tsunami to the 9/11 attacks. 

Created by DDB Brazil’s office, the strategy was to highlight the scale of loss in the 2004 Asian tsunami which was triggered by climate change. The campaign showed dozens of planes about to hit skyscrapers on the New York skyline. 

This attack profoundly affected the American public and, indeed, the world, so it seemed unnecessary and rather shallow to compare the loss of life. DDB apologised and removed the advert claiming that it was mistakenly approved and it was pitched by inexperienced professionals. 

There are certainly other ways to highlight climate change and the impact it can have on the world without going head to head with other tragedies that lead to the loss of human life. 

Learning From Mistakes: Lessons From Tasteless Marketing Campaigns

As we can see from the case-studies, running a tasteless marketing campaign can have several negative consequences for a brand, including:

  • Lost sales: Consumers are less likely to purchase products from brands that they perceive as insensitive or offensive. This can lead to a significant loss of sales and revenue.
  • Damage to brand reputation: Negative publicity from a tasteless marketing campaign can damage a brand’s reputation and make it more difficult to attract new customers. In extreme cases, it can even lead to boycotts and a decline in brand value.
  • Legal action: In some cases, brands may be sued for running tasteless or offensive marketing campaigns. These lawsuits can be expensive and time-consuming, and they can also damage a brand’s reputation.

Creating Inclusive and Respectful Marketing Campaigns

To avoid running tasteless marketing campaigns, it is important to follow a few basic guidelines:

  1. Do your research: Before creating a marketing campaign, it is essential to conduct thorough research on the target audience. This includes understanding their demographics, interests, and values. By understanding your target audience, you can ensure that your campaign is relevant and respectful.
  2. Avoid offensive language and imagery: Avoid using language or imagery that is offensive to any particular group of people. This includes slurs, stereotypes, and images that can be seen as demeaning or disrespectful.
  3. Be mindful of cultural sensitivities: Be aware of cultural sensitivities and avoid making generalizations about different cultures. It is always better to err on the side of caution and avoid using any content that could be considered offensive to a particular group of people.
  4. Seek feedback: Before launching a marketing campaign, it is helpful to get feedback from a diverse group of people. This can help you to identify any potential issues with the campaign and make changes before it goes live.

Tasteless Marketing Campaigns: Resources for Further Learning

Want to learn how to avoid tasteless marketing campaigns? Here are some recommended resources for further learning about marketing ethics and how to create effective and respectful marketing campaigns:

  • Sustainable Marketing: The Industry’s Role in a Sustainable Future (Paul Randle, Alexis Eyre)
  • Marketing Ethics & Society (Lynn Eagle)

FAQ: Tasteless Marketing Campaigns

What is a tasteless marketing campaign?

A tasteless marketing campaign is one that is considered to be inappropriate or offensive by a significant portion of its target audience. These campaigns often use offensive language, imagery, or stereotypes, and they can cause significant damage to a brand’s reputation.

Why do companies run tasteless marketing campaigns?

There are a number of reasons why companies might run tasteless marketing campaigns. In some cases, the company may simply be unaware that its campaign is offensive. In other cases, the company may be trying to shock or offend its target audience in order to get attention.

However, even if a company is aware that its campaign is offensive, it may run it anyway if it believes that the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks.

What are the consequences of running a tasteless marketing campaign?

The consequences of running a tasteless marketing campaign can be severe. These campaigns can damage a brand’s reputation, lead to boycotts, and even result in legal action. In some cases, companies have been forced to apologize for their offensive campaigns, but the damage to their reputation may already be done.

What can companies do to avoid running tasteless marketing campaigns?

There are a number of things that companies can do to avoid running tasteless marketing campaigns.

  • First, it is essential to conduct thorough research on the target audience. This includes understanding their demographics, interests, and values. By understanding their target audience, companies can ensure that their campaigns are relevant and respectful.
  • Second, companies should avoid using offensive language or imagery. This includes slurs, stereotypes, and images that can be seen as demeaning or disrespectful.
  • Third, companies should be mindful of cultural sensitivities. They should avoid making generalizations about different cultures and err on the side of caution when using any content that could be considered offensive to a particular group of people.
  • Finally, companies should seek feedback from a diverse group of people before launching a marketing campaign. This can help them to identify any potential issues with the campaign and make changes before it goes live.

What are some examples of tasteless marketing campaigns?

Listed below are some additional examples of tasteless marketing campaigns.

  • Pepsi’s “Come Alive” ad (1986): This ad featured a black woman transforming into a white woman after drinking a Pepsi. The ad was widely criticized for its racism. Pepsi then issued an apology.
  • Nissan’s “Geisha” ad (2013): This ad featured a white woman dressed as a geisha. The ad was widely criticized for its cultural insensitivity, and Nissan was forced to apologize.
  • H&M’s “Monkey” hoodie ad (2018): This ad featured a young black boy wearing a hoodie that said “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” The ad was widely criticized for racism, and H&M was forced to apologize.

Preventing Tasteless Marketing Campaigns 

Creating advertising campaigns with structure and poise can be difficult, and reaching out to an audience with empathy requires skill. These eight marketing campaigns that we have highlighted have negated how to truly deliver thoughtful and touching work that encourages audience engagement with a brand or service. A strong marketing move is to conduct extensive market research and ensure your campaign is informed. 

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