Companies big and small regularly pay top dollar to marketing firms to help them make a big splash with consumers. While some campaigns succeed famously, others fall flat--or worse, they offend, disturb, or otherwise spurn the potential customers they were hoping to attract.
Here are eight examples of the year's biggest marketing blunders.
1. Ancestry.com's Romanticization of Slavery
In April, genealogy research company Ancestry drew criticism for an ad called "Inseparable" that was made for the Canadian television market and was released on its YouTube channel that appeared to romanticize interracial relationships in the slave-owning American South. Viewers were quick to respond to the ad, which shows a white man asking a black woman to escape to the North with him while holding a wedding ring, as it seemed to ignore the nation's violent history of slavery. The company pulled the ad from TV spots and YouTube. In April, it told CBS News that "Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history." The company did not return Inc.'s request for comment on its campaign.
ooooh my god LMAOOO who approved this ancestry commercial??? pic.twitter.com/Isy0k4HTMA-- manny (@mannyfidel) April 18, 2019
2. Revolut's Cheeky Valentine's Day Stunt
London-based financial technology company Revolut's cheeky Valentine's Day ad struck many as off-color--and potentially indicative of a larger data privacy issue. In the ad, which was plastered across London's Underground ahead of Valentine's Day, Revolut asked, "You ok, hun?" to the 12,750 people who ordered a single-size portion of takeout on Valentine's Day. The idea that the company may be tracking users' spending habits with such specificity is what really drew critics. Complaints made it all the way to the Financial Conduct Authority, or FCA--an independent regulatory agency overseeing the U.K.'s financial markets and services--the BBC reported. The company later revealed that it made up the data, and Revolut admitted it should have been labeled as fictitious.
How much does this ad infuriate me? Let me count the ways. Firstly, patronising language & awful single-shaming more redolent of early 2000s Bridget Jones, not a modern and empowered fintech brand (1) pic.twitter.com/rnIg3YXRfq-- Iona Bain (@ionayoungmoney) February 4, 2019
At the time of the backlash, Revolut told the Independent that it would learn from the feedback, but did not apologize. When contacted by Inc. for this article, Revolut clarified that no action was taken by the FCA, but provided no further comment.
3. Forever 21's Fat-Shaming Moment
The fast fashion retailer Forever 21 made headlines this fall when it filed for bankruptcy protection, but other problems were already simmering. This summer, it included Atkins diet bars with customers' online orders as part of a third-party promotion. For recipients who received the bars with their plus-size merchandise, some found it insensitive.
I went from a size 24 to 18, still a plus size girl, so I ordered jeans from @Forever21 Opened the package, when I looked inside I see this Atkins bar. What are you trying to Tell me Forever 21, I'm FAT, LOSE WEIGHT? do you give these to NON-PLUS SIZE WOMEN as well? pic.twitter.com/ds8kUTs7T7-- MissGG (@MissGirlGames) July 19, 2019
Forever 21 quickly apologized for the mishap, noting that customers of all sizes received the promotional product. In an emailed statement to Inc., a Forever 21 spokesperson doubled down on the sentiment: "The freebie items in question were included in all online orders, across all sizes and categories, for a limited time and have since been removed. This was an oversight on our part and we sincerely apologize for any offense this may have caused to our customers, as this was not our intention in any way."
5. Match.com's Use of Secret Admirers
In September, the IAC-owned online dating company Match.com was sued by the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly using fake love-interest advertisements to persuade users to buy subscriptions. In a Twitter thread, the FTC described the practice in question: It claimed that nonsubscribers with free Match accounts received likes, favorites, emails, and IMs, along with emailed ads from Match encouraging them to subscribe to Match's service to view the identity of the sender. Adweek reports that those notifications would result in "unavailable" profiles when clicked.
FTC alleges that millions of contacts that generated Match's "You caught his eye" notices came from accts the co had already flagged as likely to be fraudulent. By contrast, Match prevented existing subscribers from receiving email communications from a suspected fraudulent acct. pic.twitter.com/iFSb9REQso-- FTC (@FTC) September 25, 2019
Match publicly responded to the lawsuit, stating that the FTC was "making completely meritless allegations supported by consciously misleading figures." Match provided no further comment beyond the company's press release regarding the incident.
6. Kim Kardashian's Lesson in Cultural Appropriation
Kim Kardashian West's announcement that she was launching a new line of shapewear in June was met with immediate feedback from consumers: The brand's name, Kimono, had to go. The name--often used to refer to a traditional Japanese dress--was an example of cultural appropriation. "Taking a Japanese word of specific and extreme cultural significance, stripping away its meaning, and appropriating it for [Kardashian West's] brand" was a big no-no, explains BBC News Japanese editor Yuko Kato.
Finally I can share with you guys this project that I have been developing for the last year.-- Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) June 25, 2019
I've been passionate about this for 15 years.
Kimono is my take on shapewear and solutions for women that actually work.
Photos by Vanessa Beecroft pic.twitter.com/YAACrRltX3
In August, Kardashian West rebranded to Skims Solutionwear, noting on Twitter that the consumer feedback helped her reflect on her original branding decision. Skims did not respond to Inc.'s request for comment.
7. McDonald's Bloody Sundae
A McDonald's in Portugal used the phrase "Sundae Bloody Sundae" to advertise its strawberry ice cream desserts in October. Customers quickly interpreted the ad copy as a reference to U2's famous song "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which is about the January 1972 Bogside Massacre in Northern Ireland, in which British soldiers shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters. Fourteen people died as a result of the 1972 incident.
Portugal is cancelled. pic.twitter.com/X1egoGRq9j-- MyLimes Na gCopaleen (@bigmonsterlove) October 30, 2019
Customers were offended, discussing on Twitter that the ad failed to recognize the seriousness of the historic event referenced. McDonald's Portugal pulled the ad amid the negative response and issued an apology. McDonald's did not respond to Inc.'s request for comment.
8. Peloton's Creepy Holiday Ad
Workout bike company Peloton has faced plenty of uphill battles this year, including a lawsuit over using popular songs in its workout videos without permission and a rocky initial public offering. The latest obstacle in its path to success is a holiday ad that left many confused. Some even compared the ad to a dystopian vision of the future or an episode of Black Mirror.
I am one of those weirdos who got a Peloton for Christmas (long story) from my husband and I love it.-- joanna schroeder (@iproposethis) December 2, 2019
I HATE THIS AD SO MUCH IT HURTS.
Just wanted to make that clear. I'm exactly the target demo & I agree w/you all that this is the beginning of a Black Mirror episode. https://t.co/EvFhjRIzu7
The 30-second ad features a woman being gifted a Peloton bike by her husband, and then vlogging her fitness journey over the course of year. Critics--and comedians--were quick to point out that gifting your spouse a workout bike has sexist undertones. The conversation sparked by the clip was followed by a drop in Peloton's stock price, as much as 9 percent. Peloton did not respond to Inc.'s request for comment.