Some people succeed at marketing and blow their competitors out of the park, but others don’t end up as fortunate. We call these marketing fails. You know a marketing fail when you see one. The look on everyone’s face is priceless and the conversation afterward is great, especially among marketing geeks like us. The ad is certainly noticeable and the company running it is recognized, but for all the wrong reasons. We have found 5 marketing fails from over the years that we could all learn from. So, if you need a dose of “what the heck?” today, check out these marketing fails!

1. Guns N’ Roses & Dr. Pepper

In March of 2008, Dr. Pepper released a marketing campaign which promised a free soda to everyone in America. But there was one condition– The lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, Axl Rose, had to “finally release his 17-year-in-the-making belabored masterpiece, Chinese Democracy”.

The album released that year in November, which caught Dr. Pepper by surprise. They hurriedly launched a website with a coupon for a free can of soda. But of course there was a catch– fans had 24 hours to print off the coupon. As fans rushed to redeem their coupon, the website crashed, which lead to furious fans of the soda and the band.

Soda drinkers blamed Guns N’ Roses for the mix up even though they made it very clear they had nothing to do with the promotion. Dr. Pepper had to go to multiple lengths and measures to ensure every American that wanted the coupon for the free Dr. Pepper received it.

Needless to say, I don’t think Dr. Pepper will ever try to pull off a stunt like that again. This unintentionally put a bad spotlight on the soda company and Guns N’ Roses. Fortunately, they have recovered from this madness now.

Lesson Learned

Make sure you can back up the offer you throw out. Don’t say you’ll install every home’s countertops for free if you don’t have the funds to do that. People want to work with companies who can walk the walk and talk the talk.

2. Urban Outfitters’ Kent State University Sweatshirt

Kent State Sweatshirt

Here is a screen shot of the sweatshirt from BuzzFeed New’s original post on the subject.

Urban Outfitters offered a one-of-a-kind Kent State sweatshirt online in September of 2014. There was only one available for $129, however, that was the least important part of the conflict. The shirt was described as “vintage” and decorated with what looked like blood splatters, which is reminiscent of the 1970 “Kent State Massacre” that left four people dead.

Kent State University was outraged by this product. They issued an email statement which said:

“We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit. We invited the leaders of this company as well as anyone who invested in this item to tour our May 4 Visitors Center, which opened two years ago, to gain perspective on what happened 44 years ago and apply its meaning to the future.”

The clothing retailer issued an apology, claiming the product was “purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection”. Supposedly, the bright red stains and holes were “discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray”. The full apology reads:

“Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such. The one-of-a-kind item was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection. There is no blood on this shirt nor has this item been altered in any way. The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray. Again, we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively and we have removed it immediately from our website to avoid further upset.”

Urban Outfitters said they removed the shirt immediately from the website, although someone on eBay claimed to have purchased it.

Lesson Learned

Before you release anything with another brand attached, make sure you know the history behind them. Urban Outfitters may have been oblivious to the “Kent State Massacre”, but they should have done their research and investigated any controversial meanings associated with the design. This marketing fail could have easily been avoided if the colors used were anything but red.

3. American Apparel Tumblr Mistake

Challenger explosion

This is a screen shot from Adweek of American Apparel’s Tumblr post.

On the 4th of July almost every company with social media will make a patriotic post with a picture of either a flag or fireworks. In 2014, American Apparel decided to post a picture of firework smoke, but what they posted was a photo of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding.

A 20-year-old worker posted the photo thinking it was a colorful, patriotic explosion. They had no idea what the Challenger was or that it had exploded on national television. The company posted a snapshot of American astronauts dying on live TV; can it get any more embarrassing and damaging to the brand’s reputation than that?

The company released a statement apologizing and deleted the post.

Lesson Learned

Once again, know the history of what you’re using. But also, make sure multiple people in your company look over something before it’s posted. This includes social media, blogs and website content. This mistake could have been avoided if it had been checked and approved by a coworker or supervisor.

4. DiGiorno Pizza Hashtag


TIME did a story over the pizza fiasco. Here’s a screenshot from their report.

When a hashtag goes viral, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon and use it in a tweet. Many corporations and businesses join in on the hashtag fun to keep in touch with their social media savvy market. Well, DiGiorno hopped on the bandwagon for the wrong hashtag.

They tweeted, “#WhyIStayed You had pizza,” in September of 2014. What they didn’t know before using that hashtag in the tweet was that #WhyIStayed had been used by thousands of women opening up about why they stayed in violent relationships.

This all happened during the era of the suspension of NFL player Ray Rice for beating his wife. The hashtag flourished and the pizza company joined in without first researching what it was about.

DiGiorno quickly deleted the tweet and explained in their next tweet that they didn’t read what the hashtag was about before posting.

Lesson Learned

Make sure what you’re posting is relaying the message you want it to, no matter how simple it may seem on the surface. If that means waiting five minutes for the internet to load what the hashtag is about, then wait. I promise it’s worth the wait to not make a fool of yourself.

5. Mr. T’s Snickers Commercial

In the UK, a Snickers candybar ad that featured Mr. T was pulled off air in July of 2008. In the commercial, Mr. T’s character was harassing a speed walker for being a “disgrace to the man race”. This was found offensive to gay people, so the US had many complaints against the commercial.

In the commercial, Mr. T pulls up in the back of a flatbed truck alongside a man in short, tight, yellow shorts who’s speed walking. He yells “Speed walking. I pity you fool. You a disgrace to the man race. It’s time to run like a real man.” This insinuates the man in the yellow shorts wasn’t “manly” enough to be considered a real man.

Mars, creator of the Snickers bar, said the ad was supposed to be “fun”, and that they never intended to offend anyone. They pulled the campaign off air globally. A spokeswoman for Mars stated, “We understand that humour is highly subjective, and it is never our intention to cause offence.”

And to think, in June of this year same sex marriage became legal in all 50 states. If that commercial caused that much of a controversy 7 years ago, imagine how much trouble it would stir up now!

Lesson Learned

Be careful with humor. It’s very easy for the public to not accept humor that puts others down. Consider your audience when marketing and how they will decode your message. Include a diverse group of people in strategizing your marketing efforts to ensure there is as little offense as possible.

Don’t be a marketing fail!

There are many blogs that post these sorts of examples, and we really don’t want to see your marketing efforts end up on one of them. We hope you’ve learned a few lessons from these marketing fails to keep in mind while brainstorming and creating your own marketing materials. As a recap, remember:

  • Follow through with what you advertise.
  • Know your historical events.
  • Have your work double, even triple, checked by coworkers before it’s posted.
  • Present and relay your message the way you want it to be received.
  • Rely on a diverse group to develop marketing strategies.

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