Marketing Strategies That Failed Spectacularly

Humans can be really dumb and some marketing campaigns display this perfectly. Here are some of the worst marketing strategies that failed spectacularly.


Behind every marketing campaign is a team of execs, fact checkers, art directors and more. You’d think this would result in well-planned, well-executed strategies every single time. But, of course, marketing teams are only human; and humans can be really dumb. As these examples prove, sometimes even the biggest dogs in the game can have a swing and a great costly miss.

10. Snapple’s Sticky Situation

In June 2005, Snapple decided the best way to gain attention for its new popsicle product, “Kiwi-Strawberry On Ice”, was to go big: really big. Snapple took on the previous Guinness Book of World Records holder for “Largest Popsicle”, constructing a 17.5-ton popsicle.

The tasty monolith was constructed in New Jersey and hauled to New York on a freezer truck kept at -15 degrees Fahrenheit. On arrival, the popsicle was dangled over East 17th Street in Manhattan by a crane.

Somewhere in the process, however, the popsicle’s core had melted. This meant that when the crane lifted it into the air, the mushy, sticky innards flooded the streets.

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Passers-by were reportedly slipping in the puddles, and the mixture was growing increasingly sticky in the summer sun. Authorities were called in for the cleanup, which Snapple later paid for, leaving the whole ordeal as nothing short of a total disaster.

Snapple never figured out why the popsicle didn’t keep its solid form, but it was likely a combination of incomplete initial freezing, the hot sun, and a marketing team with more money than brains.


9. Out With The Oldsmobile

In 1988, an American car brand produced by General Motors decided to take the “Olds” out of its Oldsmobile namesake and prove that they were ‘cool’ now. While brand rejuvenation is often a wise move, it all hinges on smart approaches to new markets.

Unfortunately, adopting the campaign slogan ‘it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile’ wasn’t the wisest choice. The accompanying adverts featured a typical 80s, synthesizer-heavy jingle, as well as artsy shots of the youth, attempting desperately and clumsily to appeal to the ‘new generation’.

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It failed miserably, as the car itself had barely changed at all, meaning the kids weren’t interested. Meanwhile, the loyal customers who had enjoyed the Oldsmobile in the past were alienated, fearing that the car they’d loved had now been changed in some way.

In the following decade or so, Oldsmobile became obsolete. Great job Oldsmobile; it’s not often you alienate both potential markets in one fell swoop!

8. Frequent Flyers

In the 1980s, airlines were hit hard by new regulations, stiff competition, and the changing face of the airline business. In an attempt to gain attention and thus profit, American Airlines announced the Unlimited AAirpass, which, for the mere sum of $250,000, would entitle the bearer to free flights for the rest of their life.

28 people took advantage of this deal before American realized that rising operation costs – and over-enthusiastic usage of the passes – meant that the one-off fee of $250,000 wasn’t profitable. As a matter of fact, it soon started losing them money. Two individuals contributed to this loss more than anyone else: Jacques Vroom and Steve Rothstein.


The two held passes until July 2008, when American calculated that their flights, totaling millions of miles each year, were costing the company $1 million each, annually. Rothstein was even noted to have taken regular trips across the Atlantic simply for a bite to eat with friends.

Soon, American Airlines began stripping customers of their unlimited passes in airports, very publicly, resulting in costly legal proceedings as well as a permanently-tarnished reputation. Today’s AAirpass allows on-demand travel for a discounted rate, but endless free trips to Chicago just for a slice of pizza are, unfortunately, off the cards.

Hoover vacuums’ British arm made a similar mistake in 1992, when they launched a promotion offering two free return flights to Europe with a purchase of more than £100. Profit was expected to come from the various small-print loopholes and profitable extras travel agents were encouraged to push.


When the first promotion went well, Hoover began offering flights to New York or Florida in the same scheme. This meant that for the purchase of a rather inexpensive Hoover, customers could obtain flights worth over £600.

The promotion became much more popular than anticipated, and Hoover was only able to deliver a fraction of the tickets. After coughing up £50 million for the free flights, while only generating £30 million in sales, Hoover bled out another £7 million to quell the PR damage. Just like their famous products, Hoover’s marketing team really sucked.

7. Spot The Difference

IKEA has franchises around the world, but some countries’ approaches to the flat-pack megastores are notably different. IKEA Saudi Arabia was called out in October 2012 for publishing catalogs which were identical to all their others… except the women were completely removed.


In general, advertising featuring women is rare in Saudi Arabia, due to cultural standards, and Starbucks even replaced their mermaid logo with a crown in order to thrive there.


But whether politically correct or not, IKEA, a company formed in Sweden – one of the most progressive countries in the world – was accused of putting business interests before women’s rights. Or maybe women really don’t exist in Saudi Arabia? Surely a catalog wouldn’t lie.

6. Weapons of Mass Distribution

In much of America, as well as all of Canada, brass knuckles are illegal. Instead, people are generally encouraged to punch each other the old-fashioned way. Electronic Arts must have missed that memo in 2009, when a shipment of press packs for their Godfather 2 video game came under fire for its questionable content.

That content, of course, featured shiny sets of brass knuckles. When they realized they’d actually committed a crime by sending these out, EA quickly recalled the knuckles, but not before causing a very public mess and some very outraged mothers.


As if soccer moms needed any more reasons to believe ‘videogames cause violence’. Luckily for EA, the blunder didn’t pack a punch in the form of any lawsuits. But EA had become the ‘Godfather’ of gaming PR disasters.

5. Smooth, With An Explosive Flavor!

Scavenger hunts might be good, wholesome fun. However, it turns out that when your “clues” are kept in abandoned briefcases in public places, the authorities tend to take the hunt quite seriously.

In 2014, Coors Light Canada sponsored a scavenger hunt across Toronto called “Search and Rescue.” This fun-in-the-sun themed publicity stunt involved hiding 880 prize-filled briefcases across the city, with clues and maps posted on Twitter each day. The hunt went smoothly until a prize briefcase left at an intersection caught the attention of the Bomb Squad.


Due to its suspicious nature, the briefcase launched an investigation, halting the evening commute for hundreds of angry people. Coors Light Canada issued a public apology, but many inconvenienced Canadians publicly renounced the brand, determined to seek light refreshments elsewhere.

4. Mild Refreshment, Poor Taste

In 1971, Coke rode the free-love political waves by teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. Voices came together, drank Coke, and called for a unified Earth.

In 2017, Pepsi tried to rehash this principle, marching 21-year-old model Kendall Jenner through crowds of protestors, to symbolically solve all the modern world’s societal issues by offering police officers a Pepsi.

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Voices arose in anger immediately after the ad aired. Coming in the wake of Black Lives Matter, the #metoo movement, and calamitous social unrest, nearly everyone was offended that Pepsi, alongside a pretty, rich valley girl famous for no noble cause, could hijack serious social issues in such a tone-deaf way.

Across the world, angry people were left wondering if Pepsi could really be that oblivious, or if they were making people angry on purpose. Ears and inboxes full of outrage, Pepsi pulled the ad and publicly apologized. Meanwhile, the social movements the ad referenced continued, somehow not resolved by Pepsi sales.


3. Always Too Soon

In 2016, Texas company Miracle Mattress learned the hard way that deeply offensive humor is best left to the comics. Attempting to cash in on a national tragedy, the store owners released an advert, featuring ‘towers’ of twin mattresses stacked in the background.

The advert asks: ‘what better way to remember 9/11 than with a twin tower sale?’. This bold opener is followed by two employees diving into the towers while saying, “Never Forget.”

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Instead of boosting sales, these antics put the company out of business almost immediately, despite various public apologies. They really should’ve slept on this dumb idea before jumping into bed with it.

2. Pepsi’s Points Panic

In 1996, Pepsi came up with a not-terribly-original, but easy-to-follow loyalty scheme: customers could earn points by buying Pepsi products. Different products had codes worth different point values. After amassing points, they could be redeemed for prizes like t-shirts, sunglasses and other random items bearing the Pepsi logo.

One commercial for ‘Pepsi Stuff’, which aired during the Superbowl in 1996, announced that seven million points could be cashed in for a full-blown Harrier Jet, complete with custom Pepsi stylings.

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Pepsi rather carelessly assumed that no one would actually want a Harrier Jet, nor bother to collect that many points. But, as you’ve probably guessed, a 21-year-old business student called John Leonard decided to take Pepsi up on their offer.

Since bottles generally earned a single point, he could have just bought 7 million and used those, but that would have cost at least a couple million dollars, and drinking all that Pepsi would be sure to turn you diabetic. He discovered that Pepsi Points could be purchased for 10 cents each and found this method to be a comparatively cheap way of acquiring a fighter jet.

Presumably, Leonard had plans to sell the jet, as it's worth a few million dollars, though all-out war with Coca-Cola may have been the endgame. Leonard lined up a handful of investors and sent 15 Pepsi points labels, alongside a check for $700,000 for the Harrier Jet to Pepsi HQ.


Pepsi refused the offer, and execs were baffled that they needed to explain the ad was a joke.

Things escalated to a lawsuit, but fell in Pepsi’s favor, with the court ruling that "no objective person could reasonably have concluded that the commercial actually offered consumers a Harrier Jet." However, as a protective measure, Pepsi changed the commercial so that the jet required 700 million points.


Honorable Mentions

Before the biggest blunder is revealed, there are a couple of facepalm-worthy tales that deserve an honorable mention. Firstly, an outstanding case of “what were they thinking” when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg conducted a virtual reality tour of Puerto Rico following devastating hurricanes in 2017.

The gimmick was intended as a way to announce Facebook’s $1.5 million relief effort and work with the Red Cross, but Zuck isn’t exactly known for being a PR guru. During the livestream, Mark’s smiling, laughing virtual icon wandered off to play with his dog and could be witnessed high-fiving his cohost, all while real people in the background struggled to survive the flooding and devastation.

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There’s also an interesting ad, found in a Berlin subway station. It grew popular and controversial on the internet through its photoshopped English translation, which says "Come a little closer".

This funeral home ad, allegedly the work of avant-garde German ad team Jung Von Matt, jokingly suggests readers help out the business by stepping onto the subway tracks. Despite its controversial nature, the Bergemann and Sohn funeral home received positive feedback from this ad, which is why it’s only an honorable mention.


1. The Cost Of Gluttony

A surefire way to fail spectacularly is to underestimate hungry Americans and in 2003, Red Lobster made that very mistake. The then-president of the chain Edna Morris assumed running an all-you-can-eat promotion would be a terrific way to bring new life to the Red Lobster brand.

However, of all the inexpensive sea critters, she chose snow crab legs as the promotion’s center-point. Unfortunately, in 2003, snow crabs were in short and expensive supply, due to over-harvesting in previous years.


Whether unaware of the high price of the usually-cheap crab or spurred on by some kind of deep-rooted hatred of crustaceans, Edna stood firm on Snow Crab. Edna had enjoyed success with all-you-can-eat promotions in a steakhouse chain and assumed the formula could be transferred from turf to surf.

For a mere $22.99, customers could gorge themselves with crabby goodness. Unfortunately, Edna failed to realize that steak was hugely more filling than crab. The average customer ate two dozen legs per sitting, with many returning for a fourth helping; way more than the anticipated amount per customer.


Not only that, but cracking crab legs to eat is also time-consuming, meaning customers were hogging tables for hours. Hourly customer capacity suffered badly, and news of the fiasco resulted in a 12% drop in share prices for Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden, as well as skyrocketing already-high snow crab prices.

All in all, the promotion was a costly disaster. Edna, the scourge of snow crabs everywhere, was thrown into the deep blue sea of unemployment, while Red Lobster narrowly avoided sleeping with the fishes.

I hope your forehead is not sore from facepalming at some of these marketing fails. Thanks for reading!

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