Top 10 Worst Print Ads – Avoid Killer Advertising Mistakes

by | Jul 28, 2021 | Marketing and Sales Blog Posts

Top 10 Worst Print Ads

One small error or oversight is all it takes to derail a marketing endeavor. When creating ads that make an impression, you want them to be memorable for the right reasons. The wrong reasons can prove fatal for a brand, especially in today’s hyper-connected world.

These 10 advertising mistakes offer valuable lessons we can all learn from. Let’s take a look at what happened and find out what they can teach us.

Advertising Mistake #1: Mr. Clean’s Mother’s Day Stereotypes

Print Advertising Mistakes - Mr. Clean

Mr. Clean decided to advertise the brand’s cleaning products with what the company probably thought was an uplifting message about mother-daughter bonding. Unfortunately, the advert depicted a mother and daughter cleaning windows together, featuring text about getting “back to the job that really matters” on Mother’s Day. 

The advert was interpreted as reinforcing gender stereotypes that imply a woman’s job is limited to housework. 

The lesson: Do your utmost to avoid using stereotypes. Before publishing any marketing material in print or online, take a second look.

Advertising Mistake #2: PETA’s Fat-Shaming Billboards

Print Advertising Mistakes - PETA

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has a history of advertising campaigns that attempt to guilt or shame consumers into adopting their hardline approach to lifestyle and animal rights. One of their more shocking campaigns ran in Florida in 2009.

The billboard depicted an overweight person in a swimming costume on a beach. The text read, “Save the whales. Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.” The fat-shaming caused an uproar, and the outcry soon led to the adverts’ replacement. 

The lesson: Never use insults to get your message across. Laugh with people, not at them.

Advertising Mistake #3: Pepsi Didn’t Read the Room

Print Advertising Mistakes - Pepsi

In 2017, soft drink company Pepsi caused outrage with an advert inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. The advert starred Kendall Jenner, who appears to end a standoff between protestors and police officers by offering one of the officers a can of cola. Pepsi apologized, the advert was pulled and parodied, and 6 months later, company president Brad Jakeman resigned.

The company said it hoped the advert would portray the brand and its products as a culturally unifying force. Instead, it came across as tone-deaf and as an attempt to trivialize an important social cause. 

The lesson: Read the room and avoid referencing sensitive subjects.

Advertising Mistake #4: Bacardi’s Offensive Attempt At Humor

Print Advertising Mistakes - Bacardi

In a poor attempt at humor, an affiliate of the alcohol brand Bacardi ran an advertising campaign that implied that people who want to appear better-looking should find an ‘ugly girlfriend.’ The advert took the form of a mini-site and a Facebook page. 

The brand shut down the campaign after a couple of weeks due to complaints.

The lesson: Avoid being judgmental or degrading people in your campaigns.

Advertising Mistake #5: Adidas’ Poor Choice Of Words

Print Advertising Mistakes - Adidas

After the 2017 Boston Marathon, Adidas sent a congratulatory email to customers who participated in the race. The subject line was a simple, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” A similar short, sweet message would’ve been appropriate for any other marathon. 

However, the subject line could have been better worded when it comes to one of Beantown’s biggest fitness events. In 2013, 3 people died, and more than 250 people were injured when a bomb exploded at the marathon. The company apologized immediately. 

The lesson: Have more than one person proofread all the copy included in your advertising campaigns.

Advertising Mistake #6: Burger King Goes Below The Belt

Print Advertising Mistakes - Burger King

When Burger King decided to advertise its BK Super Seven Incher, the ad agency it used took an approach that went below the belt. The advert featured an open-mouthed model faced with a sandwich. The pose and the accompanying text suggested a sexual act, which provoked a backlash from angry customers. 

Burger King responded by saying it was a limited-time promotion and that a Singapore-based agency was responsible for creating the advert. Several years later, the model stumbled across the advert and called for a boycott of the fast-food company, as she had no idea they’d used her image. 

The lesson: Don’t include sexual innuendo in your advertisements, and don’t use people’s images without consent.

Advertising Mistake #7: Hacienda’s Massacre References

Print Advertising Mistakes - Hacienda

In the mid-2000s, Hacienda Mexican Restaurants ran a billboard campaign in Indiana. The advert featured a cocktail, a headline that read, “We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid,” and a slogan that read, “To die for!” The Kool-Aid and death references alluded to the mass murder-suicide that took place at the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.

The marketing chief, Jeff Leslie, said that the brand wasn’t trying to be controversial but rather that it wanted to be noticed. Whatever the brand’s intentions, the public, and press weren’t having any of it. After two weeks of outcry, the brand removed the advert. 

The lesson: Avoid sensitive subjects, especially when they’re tragedies that resulted in the deaths of innocent people.

Advertising Mistake #8: Flora Forgets Inclusivity

Print Advertising Mistakes - Flora

In a misguided attempt at being relevant, South African margarine brand Flora ran an advert that featured a heart made of porcelain, and the words, “Uhh, Dad, I’m gay,” shaped like a bullet headed toward the heart. The advert also featured the text, “You need a strong heart today.” 

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company that owns Flora, ordered the withdrawal of the advert after activists, the public, and the press condemned it as homophobic. 

The lesson: Be inclusive. Your ad will reach different groups of people.

Advertising Mistake #9: Airbnb Forgets The Importance Of Timing

Print Advertising Mistakes - Air BnB

Despite being one of the most user-friendly, well-designed sites, Airbnb doesn’t always get everything right. In 2017, they learned an important lesson regarding the timing of advertising campaigns. On August 28, Airbnb launched its Floating World campaign, which features an image of a house floating on the surface of the water. It also featured lines of text that read, “Stay above water” and “Live the life aquatic with these floating homes.” 

The problem was that Hurricane Harvey was pummeling the city of Houston. A spokesperson apologized for the insensitivity of the timing. 

The lesson: Pay attention to current events and make changes where necessary.

Advertising Mistake #10: Antonio Federici’s Naughty Religion

Print Advertising Mistakes - Federici

Italian ice cream company Antonio Federici ran an advert in the United Kingdom featuring models dressed as a Catholic priest and nun in what appeared to be a sexual encounter. It also featured text that read, “Submit to temptation.” 

Many angry Christians called for a boycott of the company and to submit enough complaints to see the advert banned by UK authorities. The company ran a few other adverts featuring sexualized images of religion, all of which prompted a backlash from Christians. 

The lesson: Leave religion alone, as the advert undoubtedly will offend people.

The Takeaway

No matter what format your marketing takes, your advertising needs to avoid offending, insulting and marginalizing people. Creating a memorable ad is one thing; creating an ad that tarnishes your brand is another.

If you need help coming up with your wow factor message that’s laid out by professional graphic designers, book a complimentary discovery call to see how we can help you. 

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QUESTION: What question can I answer for you about advertising your business? Please share your comments or questions below:

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