The modern world has an information overload. There are far too many things to see, buy and enjoy for everyone. In a situation like this, it’s tough for people to pay attention to one thing for very long. This presents a bigger challenge to advertisers as they have to try even harder to compete for people’s attention. One of the strategies that many brands have embraced, is coming up with controversial ads. The ever-increasing attention for competition has resulted in controversial ads becoming increasingly common with every passing day. In an effort to be bold and get noticed by consumers, brands haven’t just traded controversial waters, they have plunged themselves fully in them at times.
Quite a few agencies have willingly created ads that are bound to get banned so that they can achieve maximum publicity by spending minimum money on marketing. Some agencies have also been quite reckless in this aspect, ignoring the impact their ads might have on the society in general. While bold ads which have backfired aren’t new to the advertising industry, there have been a surprisingly large amount of those in recent years.
Here are the most controversial ads of recent times, and the reasons why they worked, or didn’t.
Controversial Ad #1 – Protein World: Are You Beach Body Ready (2015)
In order to market its niche product in 2015, the nutrition firm Protein World launched a series of ads on the London Underground. The most controversial among that series of posters was the one featured here. It featured a stunning blonde in a yellow string bikini and bore the headline ‘Are you beach body ready?’. The ad provoked widespread public outrage and even led to vigilante acts of vandalism.
A portion of the British public vented its disdain on social media and accused the ad of promoting an unhealthy body image. A total of 378 complaints were registered with the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority. There was also a petition to have the ads removed. The public outcry spilled on the streets as well and there was a small demonstration held against it in Hyde Park. Looking to profit from the publicity surrounding the campaign, Carlsberg weighed in with the parody: ‘Are you beer body ready?’. However, despite the ad’s controversial nature, Protein World stood by its in-house produced campaign. The firm ended up eliciting even more ire with its responses on social media. The brand went as far as calling dissenters #fattysympathisers and took pot-shots at feminists who voiced their objection to the ad.
However, all of the hue on cry about the ad actually ended up boosting the firm’s sales. The chief marketing officer of Protein World alleged that the outcry around the ads actually benefitted the company and that the £250,000 it had spent on the campaign resulted in over £1 million in sales. Ultimately, the ASA did not uphold the complaints against Protein World regarding offense or social responsibility. However, it went on to ban the ad on the grounds of making health and nutrition claims which were unauthorized.
Protein House isn’t the only company which has tried such ads. Other firms have also tried it (albeit unsuccessfully). A prominent recent example of that was Jameela Jamil’s takedown of Avon’s anti-cellulite serum. Jamil, who is a former model and TV presenter, attacked the brand for what she saw as irresponsible advertising and body shaming of women. That triggered a major and widespread backlash on social media. Avon eventually went on to apologize for the ad and remove it.
Controversial Ad #2 – Pepsi: Live for Now (2017)
As far as recent advertising flops go, this is one of the worst (if not the worst). Pepsi’s ‘Live For Now’ ad was pulled by the soft drink retailer in less than 24 hours of its premiere. The long, two minute 30 seconds video featured an ethnically diverse, colour-coordinated crowd of young people staging a protest against an undisclosed entity. The police is about to crackdown on the protesters before supermodel Kendall Jenner arrives with her Pepsi Can and saves the day.
The ad was heavily criticised and many people felt offended by the insensitive way in which Pepsi handled the topic. According to the critics, the ad appeared to emulate a Black Lives Matter protest and portrayed Kendall Jenner in a similar way to Iesha Evans, who was arrested later.
Celebrities ranging from Madonna to the daughter of doctor Martin Luther King criticised the ad. The ad was pr oduced by Pepsi’s in-house marketing team. The brand issued an apology to both the public and to Jenner. The supermodel herself, didn’t speak about the issue until the 14th season of the hit reality show, ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’. Jenner broke down in front of the cameras and said that that she had never felt “so f***ing stupid”.
Controversial Ad #3 – Lush: #Spycops (2018)
Lush has positioned itself as a brand which supports anti-establishment thinking and social activism since its inception. Such an image, coupled with the brand’s politically charged campaigns, has awarded the brand with an army of liberal followers. However, the liberal brigade didn’t react very positively to Lush’s 2018 campaign ‘#Spycops’. The ad tried to draw the public’s attention to alleged illegal behaviour by undercover police. It’s safe to say that the ad did not go down so well with the viewers.
A roaring Twitter storm was unleashed on the brand, with outraged users calling for a boycott of Lush’s products and starting the hashtag #flushlush. The criticisms didn’t just stop on the social media as the brand also received criticism from the UK’s home secretary, Sajid Javid. In response to these complaints, Lush issued a statement to say that its campaign was not aimed at regular police officers but instead was aimed specifically at the undercover unit that infiltrated homes and created false relationships with political activists. Nonetheless, reports of police officers and members of the public intimidating Lush staff in their places of work started trickling in and the owners decided to get rid of the window dressings.
The social media backlash failed to negatively impact Lush’s financial status in the end. As per BrandWatch, the sales for Lush actually increased. Lush has built its reputation on social activism, highlighted by its various other campaigns such as ‘Error 404’, which called out the Government forced banning of internet access in some countries.
Controversial Ad #4 – Nike: Just Do It 30th Anniversary (2018)
Nike is a brand which is synonymous with sports. Especially since Nike signed Michael Jordan in the 80s, the brand’s popularity has gone up exponentially. The rise has also been helped by the spectacular marketing campaigns that the brand has run through the years. To mark the 30th anniversary of Nike’s legendary marketing slogan, Just Do It, the sports giant chose to run a series of ads featuring athletes that had overcome huge personal and physical opposition in order to rise to the top of their profession. One such athlete was the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He had famously sparked widespread national debate in 2016 by kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against the racial inequality and police brutality that continues to plague the United States of America even today.
Nike decided to have Kaepernick star in and narrate its ad for ‘Just Do It’ and it certainly polarized the sportswear brand’s audience. The creative decision ended up being divisive. While a section of the public applauded Nike for backing Kaepernick, who the brand has endorsed since 2011, a large number of people saw the ad as disingenuous and unpatriotic, going as far as to ask for a boycott of Nike products. Soon after the ad hit the airwaves, social media was awash with #JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike hashtags. The hashtags were accompanied by images of destroyed or burned Nike clothing and trainers. Even though Nike suffered a 31% drop in its share value a day after the ad was released, the brand’s sales eventually went up by 31% over the ensuing Labor Day weekend in the US.
The Just Do It: 30th anniversary ad was not the first ad by Nike that has spurred national discussion. The same year, Nike released the ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ ad to mixed reviews. While the ad has been widely applauded for its positive and mobilizing message, particularly for young people, it has experienced criticism from outside the UK capital. Many groups argued that the ad’s tagline excluded and ostracized the citizens of Britain who lived outside London. Such a sentiment was bolstered by the fact that the rest of the country anyway feels underrepresented in the cultural sphere. Nonetheless, the ad’s production, along with its adept use of athletes like Mo Farah and musicians such as Skepta and AJ Tracey, has drawn widespread critical acclaim as well.
Creative powerhouse Wieden + Kennedy, produced both of the Nike ads.
Controversial Ad #5 – Gillette: We Believe (2019)
In the wake of the burgeoning #MeToo movement, Gillette decided to take the ‘woke’ route and chose to depart from its long-established ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ tagline in 2019.
The ‘We Believe’ ad aimed to tackle the trending topic of ‘toxic masculinity’ and encourage men to be the best they can be. The ad apparently wanted to tackle everyday sexism and the institutionalized negative machismo which is hidden in the “boys will be boys” mind-set. While this change in direction has been applauded by many, it has also prompted a backlash from a wide range of people, including some of its target audience who feel disgruntled with the less-than-flattering portrait of modern men. Gillette was also wildly criticised for removing dislikes and deleting critical comments on the ad’s YouTube video. Some users went as far as to dislike the video multiple times in case Gillette removed it the first time. The video has over 32 million views and has over 1.7 million dislikes and 850k likes. Critics have said that the actual dislike number is even higher as Gillette has removed a lot of dislikes.
Ironically, the brand also came under fire from feminist groups who question the razor brand’s commitment to the #MeToo cause. The reason behind that is the fact that the brand’s female grooming products cost more than the male equivalent. Despite the negative backlash, there has yet to be evidence released that suggests Gillette’s market performance or sales have been negatively impacted overall. Some detractors have claimed that Gillette lost over $8 billion because of the ad. However, that number has not been verified.
The campaign may seem like a bolt from the blue, but due to rising competition from online razor companies, Gillette had to rethink its marketing strategy. The likes of Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s have been making progress in the sector with their own marketing promoting inclusivity. Dollar Shave Club’s latest campaign starred drag queens while Harry’s recently released an ad with England striker Harry Kane, proclaiming he is ‘Not Afraid’ to go against traditional male stereotypes. As brands offering newer and cheaper alternatives to Gillette, it is easy to see why the shaving giant must evolve.
This Girl Can’s Kim Gehrig directed this ad and Grey New York produced it.
Controversial Ad #6 – McDonald’s: Fillet-O-Fish (2017)
The American fast food behemoth faced massive public backlash after it released an ad for its Filet-o-Fish burger. The British audience was not happy with ad and compared the ad to using child bereavement to sell burgers.
The public took to Twitter, with users calling the advert “shameless” and “icky”. The fast food giant took the ad down after the ASA received over 100 complaints. McDonald’s also issued a public apology for their misjudgment of the ad’s insensitive nature. A company spokesperson insisted in an official statement that: “It was never our intention to cause any upset.” The brand also came under fire from a number of UK bereavement charities including Grief Encounter, who reported having received “countless calls” from grieving children and partners over the advert. Additional investigation was launched into the ad by the ASA but no additional action was deemed unnecessary.
McDonald’s long-standing creative UK agency, Leo Burnett was the creative force behind the ad.
Controversial Ad #7 – Dove: Controversial Facebook Post (2017)
The champion of ‘real beauty’ faced a lot of public outrage from some consumers for alleged “whitewashing”. In a Facebook ad for Dove body wash, the brand chose to portray a black woman removing her brown top and transforming into a white woman in a beige top after using the product. As expected, this poorly thought out ad sparked outrage among the brand’s social media followers. Dove was slammed with hashtags like #DoneWithDove and a call for a boycott of its products.
The ad was removed by Dove and the brand issued a public apology for its misdemeanour and admitted that it ‘missed the mark’ with the ad. This marketing mishap wasn’t the first time for Dove. There are a series of accusations of whitewashing that date back to 2011 in previous skincare campaigns. There was also the controversy caused by its Real Beauty bottle designs launched in 2017. Despite these setbacks, Dove has scored its ‘progressive’ and ‘woke’ success with GirlGaze and Getty Images, in a move to create the world’s largest photographic stock library created by women and non-binary individuals.
The Unilever owned brand usually works frequently with Oglivy and Mather for its ads.
Ambush marketing campaigns also result in some controversial ads.