Technology easily creates a space where poorly thought out content can spread like wildfire and easily be taken out of context. This landscape is hard enough to navigate as an average person wandering around social media. Just imagine how much rougher that terrain gets when you’re trying to appeal to a large and diverse audience. Or worse, sell to one. It’s no wonder that so many companies—both large and small—have experienced ad campaign fails of epic proportions. And while watching a brand dig itself a neat little hole of humiliation is terribly awkward and unpleasant, there’s a lot to learn from those mistakes. So, let’s break down a couple of the worst ad campaigns that have a strong lesson to teach, shall we?
Pepsi’s Tone Deaf Kendall Jenner Ad
The poor guy who thought up this one. Pepsi’s attempt to unite people over their differences was well-intended, we’re sure. But in trying to tackle enormously complex topics such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo with kid gloves, the soda giant really missed the mark.
In the commercial, incredibly happy protesters can be seen carrying such vague G-rated signs as “Join the Conversation!” and “Peace”, leaving viewers feeling confused as to what exactly these people are protesting. And when supermodel Kendall Jenner miraculously solves the “conflict” by sharing her can of Pepsi with a police officer? You could practically hear the entire nation collectively groan—no matter their side of the political spectrum. At best, people felt it was slimy. Capitalize on social issues to sell soda? No, thanks. And at worst, many people felt it trivialized the very real (and sometimes dangerous) political protests and marches that have taken place in this country, both recently and throughout history.
Why the Ad Campaign Fails
What can we learn from the way Pepsi’s ad campaign fails to hit its target? Well, a couple things. First, you need to think long and hard about how your content is going to be received. Talk to people outside your inner circle and take their opinions to heart. Even a small business can make a big faux pas if its tone deaf advertising goes viral.
Secondly, sometimes it’s okay to just sell a product. Take Diet Coke’s “Because I Can” ad campaign, for example. Sure, the whole concept might be a little lazy. But, ultimately, the commercials aren’t doing anything other than trying to sell you a pretty good tasting soda. And that transparency can actually be refreshing. “Companies now attempt to rise above media chatter by ‘starting conversations,’ even as their natural risk aversion and the limited role they actually play in our lives mean those conversations are pointless and circumscribed,” said Time Magazine in an article about the ineffectiveness of this very Pepsi ad.
That’s not to say that sensitive issues are off the table, just that the stakes are that much higher for failure. But for those who take the risk, there’s a right way to do it. Just check out this Heineken ad addressing everything from environmentalism to transgender rights. Yea, the company is selling beer. But what better way to ‘start a conversation’ (in this case “open your mind, open your world”) than by sitting down, cracking a beer, and really getting to know the person with whom you disagree. Heineken handled itself and the larger issues with openness and respect, and that resonated with viewers.
LifeLock’s Terrible Overestimation of Its Services
This one’s going back awhile, but let it serve as a lesson that once something exists on the internet, it’s there forever. Around 2007, Todd Davis, then-CEO of LifeLock, an identity-theft protection agency, put his REAL social security number on an advertisement that spanned websites, billboards, and subways across America. At first, it seems like a bold move that could pay off, right? “If the CEO is that confident in the company’s services, I should be too!”
Well, sure, if LifeLock was actually in any place to make that kind of guarantee. Instead, ol’ Todd’s identity got stolen a whopping 13 times by 2010, the Federal Trade Commission fined the company $12 million in March of that year for deceptive advertising and then hit them with contempt charges in 2015. Davis resigned in 2016, and according to one particularly whimsical line in his Wikipedia bio, he did so to “pursue his passion for writing poetry and creating sand art.” Huh. I guess even some of the worst ad campaign fails can still have a happy ending.
Why the Ad Campaign Fails
Davis’ naivete in thinking that taunting America’s thieves and hackers was a good idea, all while overestimating his company’s ability to keep them at bay, left LifeLock with some serious egg on its face. Moral of the story? Know thyself. If you know you can’t deliver on your promises, don’t make them. Yes, telling a client that you don’t have the knowledge, or products, or staff, or whatever, to do what they’re asking can be really humbling. But you know what’s worse? Having to refund a customer’s money or earning a terrible review because you spun a good story and then had nothing to back it up. Be honest, even when it means admitting your shortcomings.
Live and Learn
We live in an era of hyper-connectivity…and some might say hyper-sensitivity. It’s so important to carefully think through all the possible ways your content can be received before launching it. Otherwise, you might find that not only have you inadvertently offended someone, but it has been shared 1,000,000 times within a context that invites derision. Walking the fine line of entertaining, relevant content and traditional, ho-hum advertising can feel like a tight rope. Just remember that taboo topics will generate buzz, but it might not be the kind you’re looking for and, really, who wants that headache? Stay true to your brand and speak from the heart. You can’t please everyone, but most people will respect your honesty and positivity.
Got some good ad campaign fails? Put them in the comments! We’ll be returning to this topic soon, and would love to feature your suggestions.