Top Ad Fails of the 20th and 21st Century

April 24, 2024

For every brilliantly executed ad campaign, there’s an equal and opposite facepalm-worthy failure. Whether it’s a tone-deaf slogan, a poorly timed tweet, or a business management fail of epic proportions, the annals of advertising history are filled with cautionary tales of what happens when things go very wrong. Remember, always think twice before hitting that “publish” button—your brand’s reputation depends on it.

AA Very Bad Idea

In the 1980s American Airlines introduced “AAirpass” that offered unlimited first-class travel for a flat rate of $250,000. Membership was life-long and there were no restrictions. These AAirpasses were so popular that American Airlines began losing millions of dollars every year due to the high volume of flights taken by AAirpass holders. American tried to find a way to revoke the memberships resulting in outrage and lawsuits. This program backfired creating massive financial losses and very angry customers.

What we learned

If you offer incentive programs to your customers, always include terms and conditions to protect your business from exploitation. Make sure the cost of the incentive does not throw you into financial peril.

No Pepsi, Coke! New Coke!

Another brand faux paus was the result of the cola wars of the 1970s and 80s. Coca-Cola ran number one to Pepsi, but in April of 1985, they inexplicably changed their recipe to a corn syrup sweetened version that tasted more like Pepsi. This wasn’t an additional version of Coca-Cola; they removed the original Coke product from the shelves completely. The backlash was swift and painful. Customers hated the “New Coke”. Within months Coca-Cola reintroduced the original recipe cola under the name Coca-Cola Classic. New Coke left the shelves quickly.

What we learned

Always listen to your customer. Sometimes the flavor is not the only factor in customer satisfaction. Coca-Cola was always recognized for its nostalgia and friendly brand. To change a successful brand so abruptly is rarely welcome. Be cautious about change and do your research with customers first.

Mind the Gap

In 2010, Iconic brand Gap replaced its logo with a new heavy black font with a blue square behind the p. It was Gap’s attempt to move to a modern cool but was immediately rejected by consumers. The backlash included satirical Twitter feeds and a “Crap Logo Yourself” bully website. Gap tried to address this head on with a crowdsource social media campaign to redesign the logo. This idea was relentlessly attacked to the point where Gap went back to their old logo within six days of the original brand change.

What we learned

People like tradition. When an iconic brand is so recognizable, it is difficult to move in another direction. Lower your risk by polling customers and testing your product before launch. It is possible to reach new, modern audience members without losing your identity.

Endless shrimp sinks ship

Post-pandemic shut down; Red Lobster began an offer few Americans could refuse. Endless shrimp for $20. Originally offered once-a-week to increase restaurant visits, management tweaked the offer to an everyday price. The chain underestimated the response to this cheap deal which led to massive losses. Too many people took advantage of this low margin offer and the Q3 2023 chain’s losses were in the hundreds of millions. Red Lobster filed for bankruptcy in the spring of 2024.

What we learned

Increasing the number of customers is great, but if the offer has too low of a margin of profit, you will not come out on top of this game. Make sure your offers are decent enough to bring in clientele, but not too good as to break the bank.

X marks the spot?

It is hard to discuss advertising fails without mentioning Twitter/X. After Elon Musk bought the company for a record $44 billion dollars he has done nothing but confuse users and make people angry with his commentary. Changing the name of the platform, charging for check marks, (why are they different colors?) and creating ridiculous public conversations has turned the successful social space into a confusing and angry mess. X has lost half its value since Musk took over the brand.

What we learned

Brand image matters and when you have a successful business model with a good brand, shock marketing does not work. We understand Elon is trying to change the market by doing the unexpected and being controversial to make the brand stand out, but with poor roll out and confusing offerings, it rarely works out well for the brand.

Pepsi lives matter

In 2017 Pepsi released a commercial featuring Kendall Jenner who joins a protest and works through the crowd to hand a police officer a can of Pepsi. Because of the political scene at the time, it was considered a trivialization of the Black Lives Matter movement. The online backlash was swift and hit hard, leading Martin Luther King’s daughter to say, “If only Daddy had known about the power of Pepsi”. The uproar resulted in Pepsi pulling the add and issuing an apology.

What we learned

Be aware of the social and political winds before creating an ad that may offend one group or another. Do not trivialize important moments to promote your products or services. It can polarize your audience and you will lose customers. Maintain a positive brand image and reputation.

Instead of putting your business reputation at risk, partner with our team at GMCI Creative. We know what it takes to run successful advertising campaigns and can keep you out of the advertising dog house.

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