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10 epic marketing fails of 2012

10 epic marketing fails of 2012 Michael Estrin

Most campaigns come and go without much notice. To varying degrees, those campaigns are effective for the target audience and memorable only to the people who worked on them. But there are two other groups of campaigns that do stick in our industry's collective memory -- those that were brilliant and those that were just plain awful.

We spend much of the year talking about the brilliant campaigns that push digital forward. But as 2012 draws to a close, it's time to briefly shift our focus to the flops -- the memorable failures that made us cringe. The dreadful ideas that made us ask, "What were they thinking?"

10 epic marketing fails of 2012

But the point here isn't to delight in the folly of others. In their own way, each of these brands had what we might call a teachable moment. It's worth examining the marking fails of 2012 if only because, sometimes, you can learn more from failure than you can success.


We hear this type of story too often these days. The story goes like this:

Someone in a brand's marketing department tweeted something offensive. It wasn't representative of the brand, and now the brand's PR department is doing damage control instead of telling the trade press how good the social media team is at engagement.

That's the generic version of the story. But KitchenAid gave the flop a political twist when someone there tweeted a tasteless joke about President Obama's dead grandmother during the debates. The quote read: "Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! 'She died 3 days b4 he became president'. #nbcpolitics."

OK. So KitchenAid scrambled and pulled the tweet and issued an apology. No surprise there. But the real fail here wasn't the tweet. Heck, it wasn't even the sin of failing to log out of the brand account before posting a tasteless tweet on your personal account. Nope. The real failure here is that KitchenAid didn't put a personal face on its Twitter account from the start.

Here's a part of the brand's apology:

"During the debate last night, a member of our Twitter team mistakenly posted an offensive tweet from the KitchenAid handle instead of a personal handle. This tasteless joke in no way represents our values at KitchenAid."

Represents is the operative word. If a brand wants to auto-load and tweet messages that have run through numerous copywriters, then it really doesn't need to personalize its Twitter account. But if it wants to play in real time, it had better put a public face on its Twitter profile -- because only a person (with a name and a face) can represent your brand in a conversation. Just ask Scott Monty at Ford.

European Commission

File this one under that heading of "what were they thinking?" Or maybe, "what were they drinking?"

The idea was actually a noble one. The European Commission wanted to get more young women interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Great!

Unfortunately, its plan was to grab the web's attention with a misogynist video that patronizes women. Well, it got the web's attention with more than a million views, but it also got a lot of dislikes and nasty comments on YouTube -- for good reason.

So how could this happen? Probably too many men making the decisions and not enough women. Face it: If your creative team isn't anywhere near the target demo, you're courting disaster.


Automated ad serving is part of life in digital. But if you're going to play that game, it's important to make sure you understand the parameters of where your ad can be served. This year, clothing retailer Express learned the hard way that it's probably not a good idea to integrate marketing with news stories.

Here's what happened. Using a technology known as "in-image advertising," Express had hoped to leverage current news stories by offering users a chance to buy clothes that were similar to photos featured on Yahoo News. Unfortunately, as the photo below demonstrates, the technology played out in a disastrous way when Express unintentionally offered users the chance to buy a scarf that looked like one worn by an Afghan militant. (The news story in question was about a bloody attack in Afghanistan.)

Now, this clearly wasn't human error. But it does bring into question the wisdom of some of these whiz-bang ad serving technologies that always seem to wow the industry in a demo -- and then make us all cringe when something like this happens. Because as NPR pointed out, there are plenty examples of news integrations like this one backfiring.

Belvedere Vodka

Stupid. There's really no other way to describe the thinking -- or lack thereof -- behind Belvedere Vodka's "rapey" Facebook ad. Here's the photo.

The ad is totally indefensible. To its credit, Belvedere pulled the ad fast and issued two apologies. The brand also donated money to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence group. But then another problem emerged. A few weeks after the rape ad ran, the actress in the picture filed a lawsuit against Moet Hennessy USA, which makes Belvedere. Her claim? That the brand had used her likeness without permission, allegedly misappropriating the image from a sketch performed by the actress's comedy troupe.


So not only is the creative horribly offensive, but the people who did it also forgot to get legal clearances.

Maybe they were drunk. Really drunk.

Pizza Hut

Here's an idea that never should've left the meeting. Pizza Hut posted an online video inviting the participants at the Town Hall Presidential Debate to ask the candidates whether they preferred sausage or pepperoni.

While that might sound like a great way to inject the Pizza Hut brand into the conversation (tens of millions of Americans watch the debate live on TV and the web), it backfired pretty quickly, with news outlets blasting the idea and accusing the brand of making a mockery of the democratic process. Pizza Hut responded by backpedaling and pulling the ad from its YouTube page.

Still, at least one ad professional, Donny Deutsch, defended Pizza Hut. He argued that young people would be attracted to the chain's message, especially in a media environment that conflates news with entertainment. But the trouble with Deutsch's argument is that the young people who subscribe to Pizza Hut's YouTube channel were among the first to take the brand to task for this dumb idea.


You can't fool the internet. If you're a high-profile brand, you can count on the fact that somewhere, someone will always take the time to challenge a claim that seems impossible.

The idea was for Nokia to demonstrate the Lumia 920's optical image stabilization (OIS) feature for the video camera on its mobile phone. The trouble was, it didn't demonstrate the technology. Instead, the brand shot a video with a professional camera and then tried to pass it off as its OIS technology.

The misleading video was first spotted by The Verge blog, which caught the fake simply by picking up the reflection of the professional camera crew in the video.

Nokia has since apologized, but as The Wall Street Journal points out in the video below, the OIS technology is actually pretty darn good -- which makes the decision to fake it especially dumb.


Twitter can be a tough place for brands. The platform often rewards snarky, and -- at times -- troll-like behavior. And unlike a website or Facebook page, the brand doesn't have much control over the narrative. Just ask McDonald's, which had a seemingly simple Twitter campaign blow up in its face.

McDonald's began the campaign with a simple hashtag (#McDStories) and two seemingly innocuous tweets.

Unfortunately, those tweets were quickly hijacked. Regular folks came out of the woodwork to mock the chain's quality, while others shared unflattering stories of drunkenly consuming McDonald's food. But the worst part was when PETA managed to ensnare the McDonald's Twitter team into a debate about animal cruelty. In short, it got ugly. Fast.

But the real failure here wasn't losing control of the conversation. It was the inability to see it coming. In a general sense, brands like McDonald's should be aware of what people are likely to say about them on Twitter. But for McDonald's, there was a specific warning last year when Wendy's "Here'sTheBeef" Twitter hashtag was hijacked.

There are ways for brands like McDonald's to use Twitter, but these promoted hashtags aren't it. The fact that the Twitterverse is littered with examples of brands that have failed on this front is proof that McDonald's really should have known better before it tried this one.


Here's the thing about an advertising stunt: If it works, you're a genius. But if it fails, you get hurt.

To cast a negative light on Shell Oil, Greenpeace came up with a strange bit of subterfuge. The idea was to team up with the activist comedy troupe The Yes Men to create a fake page for the oil company that encouraged people to come up with new slogans for Shell. The page was quickly overrun by snarky environmentalists who shared their own (intentionally bad) ideas for new Shell slogans. Of course, that was the idea all along.

But as Mashable rightly pointed out, that kind of stunt has a serious drawback. While it doubtless energizes Greenpeace's core audience, the polarizing prank only undermines its ability to connect with a new audience.

While Greenpeace stands by the ad, even articles praising the stunt point out that many people who saw the ad probably didn't know it was fake. Which makes one wonder why Greenpeace would bake in a potential backlash from the very people it's trying to convince.


Usually, Nike ads represent the gold standard for the industry. But during this year's Olympics, one of Nike's videos unleashed a lot of unwanted criticism online.

For Nike, the video was about hard work. But a lot of bloggers read it differently and said so. Jezebel accused Nike of mocking a fat kid to sell shoes. BuzzFeed labeled it a fail. On YouTube, the comments went in two distinct directions -- one group talking about the video as an example of greatness in us all, while the other group is just laughing at fat people. On the other hand, Salon defended the ad -- to an extent -- and praised Nike for a video with emotional resonance.

There's a theory that says great ads get people talking. By that measure, this Nike video succeeds. But the value of sparking a conversation is diminished by polarization. Most Nike ads don't polarize the brand's audience; this one did. That's a mistake. And the failure here was Nike's inability to understand the nasty -- often polarizing -- nature of the web. Frankly, anyone who has ever read comments on YouTube would know that a fat kid running would spark an ugly conversation that a brand wouldn't want to be a part of.

BBH Labs

This one goes to an agency, not a brand. And for a lot of reasons, it's probably the worst thing we saw in digital advertising this year.

The idea was something called "Homeless Hot Spots." The plan was for BBH to make a name for itself in the mobile technology market by using real-life homeless people as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

The campaign did get BBH a lot of attention, but none of it was good. Wired slammed the idea as something "out of a darkly satirical science fiction dystopia," despite claims by BBH that it was really helping the homeless men who had signed up to be walking hotspots because it was, after all, a job.

While it's true that BBH did pay their homeless hotspots $20 per day (a whopping $2.50 an hour -- although they did get to keep their tips!), you don't have to be Karl Marx to catch the exploitation. It was a dark, sick, cynical, and stupid idea that never should have left the drawing board.

The digital divide presents a real challenge for this industry and for our society. Shedding light on the topic is a good thing. Exploiting it so that your company can get a slice of the growing mobile market is pathetic, and it makes everyone look bad.

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Craig Boyte

2012, December 05

Very nice piece, it's amazing how brands don't learn from each other. Microsoft has a Twitter fail going on right now with their #DroidRage campaign.

Commenter: Adam Kleinberg

2012, November 28

Wow. Surprised by the Nike ad. I thought it was brilliant. Saw it live during the Olympics and remember how moved I was that Nike would come out and say: greatness isn't just about being an Olympian, greatness is about just doing it.

Loved the piece though, Mike.

Commenter: Sean X

2012, November 28

Loved this Michael. Thanks for making my job easier :)

Commenter: Katharine Panessidi

2012, November 28

Great article!