“Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” – that saying was popularised from a Listerine advert from 1924. Diamonds, a rather common gemstone, were not standard for engagement rings until De Beers ran one of the most effective ad campaigns of all time “A Diamond Is Forever” which cemented them into the zeitgeist as being the stone for romance and weddings.
Orange juice is drunk at breakfast because of a Sunkist advert from 1916. Adverts ushered in the concepts of business casual, blue for boys and pink for girls, coffee breaks, women shaving, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
There is no such thing as bad publicity, the saying goes. The common logic is that advertisements need to be nothing but remembrance, to get people talking about a product or company. Then, the next time they’re deciding which insurance company to use or what brand of dish soap to buy, the only thing that they can think of in that earwormy, nails-on-a-chalkboard, a little bit weird sort of way is that advertisement which was the subject of derision on Tuesday mornings coffee break. Boom, a new customer.
However, bad advertisements can have a detrimental impact on not just the bottom line of profit, but also the brand's imagery and long-lasting business standing. The advertisements which have made this list were picked for a variety of different reasons, not just their impact on the brand or company, but their critical response, and how they endured culturally.
1 - Love's Baby's Soft
Maybe one of the grossest adverts of all time, this 1975 advert for Love Cosmetics features a young, Bambi-eyed woman in a frilly, skimpy white outfit coyly licking a lollipop in a babyish manner. It’s enough to make Freud blush. The ick-factor is dialled up to eleven with the male narration “There’s one person nobody can resist and that’s a baby. So Love’s made Baby Soft, with the innocent scent of a cuddly, clean, baby that grew up veryyy sexy. So innocent it may be the sexiest fragrance around. Love’s Baby Soft…because innocence is sexier then you think.”
Baby got back indeed. And could only happen in the 70s. While the advert now is skin-crawling in its proximity of “a baby” and “sexy,” it was extremely successful and caused almost no backlash. Love Cosmetics branded itself to young women (early to mid-20s, young professionals, students, and newly wedded wives) though it was enormously popular with teenage girls because it seemed more adult than other brands at the time while still being within their price range. The combination of innocent childhood and adult sexuality was appealing to the demographic transiting from one to the other, even if today’s audience will have a very different response. The campaign and the “innocent is sexy” tagline ran throughout the Seventies before Love Cosmetics was brought out by Chattem in 1980. By then cultural attitudes have changed, and the Baby Soft line was marketed in a much more wholesome manner towards an increasingly younger demographic. However, though the advert today is remembered for all the wrong reasons, the product itself is still fondly remembered by a whole generation of American women.
2 - Because of Love, Do Not Wait.
The 2014 Chinese video advertisement for Baihe, an online dating service, sparked controversy on Chinese webspace when it aired. In the advert a young woman (first seen in graduation regalia, later in business wear) repeatedly visits her increasingly ailing grandmother, and the only question the grandmother asks is “are you married yet?” The grandmother’s health declines and the young woman muses on the fact that she cannot keep on being picky about her choice of man. The advert ends on the young woman in a wedding dress bringing her faceless husband, only his back visible, to visit her grandmother, the music swells as the young woman tearfully chokes out a “grandmother, I’m married” before cutting to the logo of Baihe.
It’s sappy, but most of the outrage was centred on that the advert was suggesting that archaic notion that women’s achievements were nothing compared to getting married. The intended audience (young professional women) felt alienated by the old-fashioned message. Others pointed out that marrying (as the advert implied) any random man for the sake of making elderly family members happy wasn’t the best way to ensure the long-term compatibility of a couple. The advert came at a flashpoint for women’s rights in China, and where issues of marriage and of career vs family were already hot button subjects that this ad trampled all over.
A few droll Weibo users also posted their own suggestions for the ending such as “grandmother, I’m a lesbian” and “are you pregnant yet?”
3 - Live For Now
This 2017 video advertisement for Pepsi, starring model Kendall Jenner, was so widely criticised that it was pulled after a day. The advert is billed as a high-brow, short film type of advertisement featuring Jenner noticing a very cheerful protest from her modelling shoot. What the protest is about is never addressed, instead wholesome, diverse, and attractive types of people in blue-toned clothes are carrying generic, blue-toned signs with peace symbols on them. Jenner, now wigless and in casual blue clothes, joins the “protest” which has conveniently placed cans of Pepsi in ice. Everyone is laughing and clapping at the sheer euphoria of existing. Jenner offers a can of Pepsi to a police officer, a woman in a hijab takes a photo of this historic moment and everyone cheers. Jenner then leads the protests somewhere as text appears on screen; Live Bolder. Live Louder. Live For Now.
It was estimated to cost anywhere from $2-$5 million dollars, with the media buy at around $100 million, all for twenty-four hours and a lasting tarnish for Pepsi’s brand. The advert was intended to bring a message of “unity, peace, and understanding” at a time in American history which will be known as being marred by division. Tensions between different sections of American society had been running high for years, inflamed by the contentious 2016 election and several high-profile cases of police brutality against people of colour. The advert was compared unfavourably to the photograph Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge. The photo, iconic to the Black Lives Matter movement, depicts a black woman in a long, flowing summer dress being arrested by three officers in full riot gear. In the advert, Jenner appears to mirror the image, though instead of being arrested she is offering a can of soft drink. Needless to say, Live For Now was immediately panned and was condemned for appropriating the Black Lives Matter protests, and for suggesting that better relations between protesters and the police could be achieved if protesters were friendly and offered cool, refreshing beverages. Bernice King, daughter of Dr Rev Martin Luther King Jr, quipped on Twitter “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”
4 - I Am Autism
The world’s understanding of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) has evolved over time. While the subject of autism is often met with controversy and confusion, to how it develops to how it presents to how it is managed, this 2009 advertisement for Autism Speaks presents the condition in a way not dissimilar to shock PSAs of the 1980s. The advert shows a series of different people who presumably have ASD while a chilling narration details how it will ruin your life (you being the carer for someone with autism), directly comparing autism to AIDS and cancer, declaring that it will destroy your marriage and leave you bankrupt. It presents ASD as a terrifying virus affecting children, conscious of its own malevolence. The latter half of the advert proposes that autism can be “weakened” through love, family, community, medicine, herbalism, and voodoo.
The film, directly by Alfonso Cuarón of all people, was heavily criticised by the autistic community as being offensive, inflammatory, and catastrophising. It sparked a major backlash against Autism Speaks, an already controversial charity due to variety of different issues from funding allocation, lack of people with autism in its management, as well as presenting ASD as something which needed to be cured when the majority of autistic people see it as being an integral part of who they are. Needless to say, comparing autism to AIDS (a virus which has killed approximately 36 million people) wasn’t going to be an easy reach to make.
Amid the backlash, the video was pulled shortly from Autism Speaks who released a statement citing that the video was “a mistake” and they “apologise for the video and the harm it may have caused.” Autism Speaks maintain that they have since moved away from the message of the film, and that it doesn’t reflect their current work. However, the advert’s legacy lingers on and has become a permanent stain on the charity it can’t seem to wipe away.
5 - Eating with Chopsticks
There have been adverts which were a detriment to business. A few which halted profits or stalled growth, fewer still which have lingered on like a bad taste in the public consciousness. But then there is an ad which effectively froze a company out of one of its fastest growing markets. Dolce & Gabbana did just that with their three 2018 adverts for the Chinese market featuring model Zuo Ye who, while completely decked out in D&G gear attempts to blithely eat several iconic Italians dishes (pizza, spaghetti and a cannoli, all in huge portions) with chopsticks. The background set is made up to resemble a Chinese market, complete with soft red lights and “traditional Chinese music” while a patronising male narrator makes fun of her for not understanding the little-known regional dish of “pizza” and laughs at her inability to eat it using the chopsticks.
The advert is inexplicable in the fact that it openly seems to be mocking its audience with racist caricatures of Chinese culture. It implies that Italian cuisine is superior to Chinese, mocks chopsticks, and proposes that Chinese culture is so isolated that foods like pizza and spaghetti are so alien to China that Chinese people do not know how to eat them. As if a culture which has noodles as a staple of cuisine can’t wrap their heads around spaghetti.
The backlash was immense, so much so that four years later it has still left a dent in Dolce & Gabbana’s expansion into China. D&G products were immediately pulled from Chinese e-commerce sites and numerous Chinese celebrities called for a boycott of D&G, or terminated their contracts as brand ambassadors. The fashion brand was also forced to cancel a fashion show in Shanghai, and since the release of the adverts have closed eleven boutiques in China. Four years after the adverts, D&G are still frozen out of China's biggest online retailers, and with the luxury goods market in China rocketing this can only be a major disadvantage to the company. Over the past year, some luxury brands have exceeded a 70% increase in growth in the Chinese market while Dolce & Gabbana remains cut out of the market. All over several seconds of badly thought-out video.