The Worst Marketing Campaigns of 2013: Why They Failed

With so many advertisers competing for our attention across so many platforms, it’s little surprise that in the race to stand out, a few brands will go over the edge of edginess into the uncharted regions of alienation and even offensiveness. Here’s a look at four marketing campaigns who launched Titanic-level disasters throughout 2013:

the titanic marketing campaign disasters of 2013

Don’t lean on mean: Pepsi Max

A little schadenfreude can go a long way, when used sparingly: advertisers can whip up a sense of identity among audiences by gently poking fun at a common foe. Unfortunately, Pepsi buried the needle to the max when it unfurled a series of World Cup tie-in ads in which Portuguese football villain, Cristiano Ronaldo, is about to be killed in voodoo-doll effigy.

Although Pepsi pulled the ads, it was too little too late for damage control (it didn’t help that Ronaldo’s team won the match the ads were anticipating). Lesson learned? Playful teasing is one thing, but even a truly mean spirit may alienate audiences. If Pepsi wanted to push the envelope that far, it should have used its deep pockets to get Ronaldo on board in the spots.

Sometimes there IS such a thing as bad publicity: Ford Figo

If Pepsi pushed the envelope, JWT India’s commercial, for the new Ford Figo, gave the envelope cement shoes and threw it into the East River. Riffing on Ford’s “Leave your worries behind” slogan, the spot featured notorious Italian Prime Minister, media mogul, and scandal sheet regular Silvio Berlusconi laughing over his shoulder from the wheel of a Figo — onto a triad of bound and gagged women sobbing in the trunk.

Where to begin? Even had the entire concept not been utterly tasteless, regardless of the “star” cameo, but inviting a man prosecuted for underage sex solicitation to appear as a kidnapper (at best)… What were they thinking? Skipping over “the White Knight”’s tax evasion indictments, wheeling out a contentious politico for surprise can give a product mileage — think of Louis Vuitton’s print ads featuring former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, despite minor controversy — but this is one ad that should have been scrapped on the factory floor.

Next time, try a dentist’s drill: K-Mart

K-Mart has done a crack job at elevating itself above its dogged status as Target’s older poor relation, successfully walking the line between sophomoric swagger and true humor with its previous “ship your pants” campaign. However, its holiday blitzkrieg “giffing” ad was a clear case of Cleanup in Aisle Seven.  The basic concept was as good as most: one understated suburban couple gawks as another are so excited by their K-Mart haul that they short-circuit into a loop of simulated gif file inane glee. So what went wrong?

Repetition, repetition, repetition. And also repetition. The central gif-loop was inexorably annoying to begin with, a water torture of reiterated titters (the fact that a real gif would have been silent doesn’t further K Mart’s marketing campaigns to seduce its marginally younger and techie-r target audience away from Target). To make matters worse, however, the K-Mart secured the ad to run on a number of internet-streamed programs, which meant that viewers were bombarded by an already bombastic bit.  By the time an episode of, say, The Daily Show rolled the titles, audiences were ready to confess to any crime. Next time, K Mart, remember that “infectious” isn’t always a good thing.

The Emperor’s New Chair: Facebook

You’d think Facebook would know how to reach out to people and be especially adept at talking about people reaching out to people. However, Facebook’s first-ever branding campaign was as socially savvy as a blonde joke at a NOW rally.

You’ve seen the set up in countless other commercials: a montage of burnished precious moments rolls out to the measured cadence of a pseudo-Satie piano etude. And all of the buildup is meant to climax with the campaign’s torture-rack extended metaphor: “Facebook is like a chair.”

Here we have a dictionary definition of style over substance. Strip away the familiar conventions of meaningfulness, and we’re left with a concept… An excruciatingly bad concept. When advertisers want to mount a campaign on a single idea, they’d better make sure its a good one.

Of course, we can all think of wildly successful brands and products whose very existence were decried as not-ready-for-prime-time upon their release. But provocative strategies and high-concept pushes must be coupled with clear messages and aimed at potentially receptive audiences. When advertisers turn up the volume for its own sake, the results can be disastrous.

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