8 Marketing Stunts That Made Companies Look Like Idiots

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by Pauli Poisuo

Marketing exists solely to separate people from their hard-earned cash, which is objectively one of the hardest things to do in the free world. So it's no surprise that sometimes it has a tendency to go over the top in order to get the job done. While some marketers manage to keep even their wildest efforts within the realm of sanity, others opt to remove the brakes entirely and Thelma & Louise their vehicle screeching into WTF Valley. And that's how the world was graced with dumpster fires such as these.


The XFL Blimp Goes Rogue, Becomes A Perfect Metaphor For XFL

In 2001, Vince McMahon's brand spankin' new XFL football league tried like hell to gain leverage and fandom from the reigning king, the NFL. As a scrappy underdog, they decided to try out some ambush marketing by hovering a blimp bearing their logo near a Raiders game, possibly in the hopes that the more popular concussion match would suck, and people would flock to check out their spin on the sport.

Well, that was the idea, anyway.

Instead, soon after the XFL blimp reached its spot, bad weather conditions forced its pilots to take it back to Oakland Airport. But thanks to assorted malfunctions and a sudden freak gust of wind, the staff was unable to moor the blimp properly after touchdown. The two pilots were forced to jump to safety, and the XFL blimp took off like the free sky-manatee that it suddenly was. It spent the next 20 minutes erratically bobbing and dipping along the Oakland skyline before the inevitable happened: It crash-landed into the side of a seaside restaurant, to the tune of $2.5 million in damages. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, unless you count XFL's reputation.

Did anyone else hear The Price Is Right failure music?

Poetically enough, this unmitigated disaster made a perfect metaphor for the doomed-to-crash XFL itself. So, if nothing else, at least this promotion did manage to capture the essence of the product.

Microsoft And Oprah Join Forces, Forget How Twitter Works

A promotional operation between Microsoft and Oprah seems like a match made in heaven. Or at least it did to them in 2012 when the two titans joined marketing forces to promote Microsoft Surface, the company's iPad competitor that you may or may not have realized was actually a thing. We're obviously not privy to the details of their agreement -- hell, it's theoretically possible that Oprah just spontaneously took a liking to the product and it had nothing to do with Microsoft's $1.5 billion promotional budget they had for Windows 8 products. Still, the plan sure looked a whole lot like your typical "social media influencer" marketing fodder. Oprah would sing the praises of the product, tweet some pro-Surface stuff, and the masses would be properly influenced.

Or they probably would have, if not for just one tiny little problem:

"And YOU get an iP- I ... I mean Surface. Because that's totally what I'm using."

Whichever minion was in charge of Oprah's social media channels that day happily, and extremely visibly, sent this endorsement from an iPad. The internet and the media had a field day with it, because haha. Oprah, on the other hand, presumably had to take some pretty interesting, and likely very pointed, phone calls from Microsoft execs.

AMC Celebrates A New Mad Men Season With Memories Of 9/11

We're not in the business of telling anyone how to do their jobs, but there's one thing we've said before and will say again: Invoking memories of 9/11 in your ad campaign rarely goes well. Just kidding -- it quite literally never goes well.

AMC learned this the hard way in 2012, when the channel decided to promote the upcoming Season 5 of Mad Men by plastering the iconic "falling man" from the show's opening credits on the side of ... uh, tall buildings. In post 9/11 New York City. A place where memories of people falling off the WTC towers is still an understandably painful subject.

If you think that doesn't sound like the best idea, rest assured, it looked even worse.

Yep. A totally normal ad, made by a company that definitely understands humans.

It doesn't help that they didn't bother including any indication that this was about Mad Men. Sure, if you watch the show, you might recognize the falling figure as part of its opening credits. But if you're not familiar with it, or can't make the connection immediately, it's a dude falling off a building and an ominous date -- you know, precisely what a New Yorker carrying the trauma of a horrible terrorist attack would really not like being reminded about. It's difficult to see how that seemed like a solid marketing idea, even before the families of the 9/11 victims started complaining.

Yet AMC seemed strangely convinced that literally everybody watches their show, and that they're all intimately familiar with its imagery. In a statement to the New York Times, they explained that, "The image of Don Draper tumbling through space has been used since the show began in 2007 to represent a man whose life is in turmoil. The image used in the campaign is intended to serve as a metaphor for what is happening in Don Draper's fictional life and in no way references actual events."

While we don't claim to have a telepathic link into the minds of fictional characters, we're willing to bet that even Don Draper would probably agree: That's pretty cold. And he'd likely have something to say about the kind of advertising that you have to defend and explain to people who don’t seem to "get" it.

Vitamin Water's Word Salad Marketing Stunt Calls You A Retard

In 2013, Coca Cola devised a fun, promotional stunt to market its Vitamin Water brand in Canada. They paid homage to the country's bilingualism by printing random English and French words on the bottle caps, resulting in adorable little word salad nonsensicalities of the "Yes Merci" and "We Amour" variety. It was just a neat bonus for the people paying attention to the underside of the bottle caps. There was absolutely nothing that could go wro-

Their energy drinks actually spit on you.

Oh man, wow. "You Retard." Oops.

Retard, of course, is a completely innocent word in French -- it means "late." But the connotations in English are what one might call a wee bit insensitive. What's worse, not only did this unfortunate combination escape notice by the company -- it was eventually discovered by a girl whose sister actually had cerebral palsy.

She was decidedly not amused. Neither was her father, who skewered Coca Cola in an extremely angry and extremely public letter, garnering nationwide headlines.

McDonald's Advertises Big Macs By Making Fun Of Mental Health Awareness Campaigns

There are many ways to advertise the most famous burger in the world. You can celebrate its history, promote with celebrities, or even go full artsy. Because what the hell -- everyone knows what you're talking about anyway.

What you probably shouldn't do is a Big Mac-themed parody of a mental health awareness campaign.

Weird, that's how we usually feel *after* a Big Mac.

The visual language that's typical in mental health Help Line ads reads, "You're not alone. Millions of people love the Big Mac." It's the kind of textual plot twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan cringe, complete with the "Help Line" number being an actual McDonald's corporate line. Imagine not paying attention to the small print, much like a desperate person looking for help might. You'd call that number, only to hear some jingle advertising a fast food item.

To their credit, McDonald's noped the crap out of that ad the second it was brought to their attention. According to them, the poster -- which fortunately only appeared in Boston mass transit -- had somehow managed to slip through the net of their usual approval process.

But now we're kind of curious about what sort of ad campaigns actually do end up in said net. Is there an office where a group of exasperated McCensors sift through the increasingly crazy pile of ideas their rogue creatives keep submitting? "Hey, guys, here's another epilepsy-themed Filet O' Fish ad from Joe. I'm really starting to think that dude has a problem."

Nutella Cease-And-Desists An Event Meant To Celebrate Nutella

In 2007, blogger and die-hard Nutella fan Sara Rosso decided that her favorite comestible should have its own day. So she set up February the 5th as Nutella Day, and started spreading (heh) the word. Over the years, the day actually gained a not-insignificant amount of traction. What started as a grassroots movement by a bunch of food bloggers grew into a "trending" sort of thing, with thousands of people tweeting about it, pinning Nutella recipes on Pinterest, and otherwise celebrating a food that's basically cake frosting.

This wasn't exactly news to Ferrero, SpA (the manufacturer of Nutella), either. Rosso had been in contact with various representatives of the company, even though they weren't directly affiliated. So imagine her surprise, when in 2013 Ferrero, SpA finally rolled up its sleeves and responded to this golden promotional opportunity they had been handed on a silver platter ... and promptly issued Rosso a cease-and-desist. Yes, the makers of Nutella (or rather, their lawyers) took one look at the people celebrating their product, and told them to piss exactly off.

We're honestly surprised their new catchphrase isn't, "Nutella: Go f**k yourself."

While Ms. Rosso understandably washed her hands of the Nutella Day business after being threatened with legal action, the company has apparently since understood that a day fans dedicated to your flagship product at absolutely no cost to you might not be the most awful promotional tool in the world. Today, the Nutella Day website is still alive, and from the looks of it, steered by the company itself. They even credit Rosso on the front page, which is undoubtedly a way better "thank you" than, say, offering her a position in the marketing department or at least some half-off Nutella coupons.

A Beer Ad Becomes An Accidental Dirty Joke

Sometimes, pictures speak louder than words. So we'll just shut up and show you this beer ad billboard from Costa Rica.

That strangely makes us hungry for telephone lines.

That's a pretty decent billboard, right? The logo is noticeable, and the beer bottle looming on the background is a classy choice that nevertheless leaves no question as to what the ad is all about. And of course, the 3D element of a BBQ sausage really makes the whole thing pop. Damn; nice job, advertisers!

Yeah, about that 3D element. As it turns out, it invoked slightly different imagery when viewed from the other side.


We really, really hope that some cunning advertiser rented the flip side of that billboard and used it for a Viagra ad. Because dude.

A Car Company Promotes Cleaner Emissions With A Suicide Attempt

A "spec ad" looks and sounds just like a normal ad, but it isn't approved by or paid for by the brand. It's basically a show reel that touts the skills of the team that made it. Because there's no input or restrictions from the client company, spec ads can be quite a bit wilder than your everyday advertisement. For instance, here's one for Audi A5 that shows a man trying to kill himself with exhaust fumes, only to fail miserably because the car's emissions are just so much cleaner than you'd think. It's in extremely bad taste, and Audi was quick to point out that it's not an actual ad, and also possibly mentally strangling the people who made it every time the clip pops up. Strangely, it's not even the only one of its kind. Here's one from 2002 with the exact same theme, this time with Citroen.

Still, it's just a spec ad. No one's seriously considering marketing clean emissions with a freaking suicide attempt.

Wait, they are? Jesus.


That's Hyundai with their much-maligned and apology-inducing 2014 ad called "Pipe Job," which is essentially the same ad as the Audi and Citroen ones, and somehow, it wasn't even the first one of its kind. Back in 1997, a South African ad agency graced the country with a Nissan ad that has an identical theme.

That's two spec ads and two actual ads, which seems both lazy and ruthless. There are some ad makers and marketing executives out there who are perfectly cool with showing human desperation taken to its extreme ... and then they use it to try and sell you a damn car.

Look, we're sorry. We don't have too many jokes for this one. We're too busy being thoroughly weirded out by the whole concept. And that's saying a lot, considering we're ... well, us.

Like this article? Check out "5 Impressively Clueless Marketing Stunts That Totally Backfired" and "4 Stupid Ways Fast Food Is Trying To Create 'Experiences’'.

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