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6 epic marketing fails of 2016


At some point this year, you've probably seen someone slam 2016. Maybe you've even been invited to an F-2016 party. It's been a rough year. And while it would be nice to rise above it all and appeal to something noble inside of us, the fact is schadenfreude gets the clicks. So without any further delay, here's our list of 2016's epic marketing fails.

Do androids dream of hateful tweets?

It's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't had a very serious conversation this year about the possibility of artificial intelligence turning the world upside down within our lifetime. Of course, those conversations are largely speculative, and as far as changing the world of ad tech, AI is probably more hype at this point than reality. Still, there are some interesting experiments, and this year one of them showed us just how awful humans can be.

The idea behind Tay, a chatbot from Microsoft, was to run an experiment in "conversational understanding." In other words, Microsoft is working on an AI bot that actually comprehends human communication, as opposed to spitting out preprogrammed responses. Sounds like a great way to pull off customer support, right? Well… that's another story. The thing with Tay is that the bot learns through real conversations; the more we talk, the smarter it gets. Unfortunately, or maybe, predictably, it didn't take long for Tay to pick up the wrong lesson. Within 24 hours of launching on Twitter, Tay began spewing racist and misogynist garbage.

Some people were quick to blame Microsoft, while others delighted at seeing an AI chatbot fall on its racist face. But there's an old saying programming -- garbage in, garbage out. The real failure here wasn't Tay, it was us.

Rhode Iceland

It's a sad but true fact that tourists need a little prompting to visit Rhode Island. But hey, that's what marketing is for, right? There's no shame in a state tooting its own horn. But when your state's marketing video appears to rip off footage from a YouTube video about Iceland, well… that's how you end up with egg on your face.

"As the Commerce Corporation put this presentation video together, explicit instructions were given to the local firm that helped with editing to use only Rhode Island footage," Betsy Wall, the Commerce Corporation's chief marketing officer wrote in an email to The Providence Journal. "A mistake was made."

The mistake, which could've happened to any state, came at video's 10-second mark. The footage of a skateboarder performing a trick on a wooden dock in front of a glass building that was later identified as Reykjavik's Harpa concert hall by some Rhode Islanders who had spent their vacations in Iceland.

Not too soon, too stupid

It's been more than a half-century since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and while every American reflects on that tragic day in their own unique way, Dec. 7 hasn't exactly become a retail experience. That fact is worth mentioning because it has an indirect bearing on an incredibly bad and tasteless decision by a San Antonio mattress company to use the anniversary of Sept. 11 to run a sale.

Naturally, the ad caused shock and outrage. To its credit, the company apologized. And rather than try and spin the apology or sugar coat it, Cherise Bonanno, the store manager featured in the video, came right out and said what everyone was thinking.

"It was a stupid idea that we sent out and we apologized for our stupidity and we really hope you forgive us for what we have done," she told WOAI-TV.

Prime d'oh!

Prime Day is not a real holiday, not yet anyway. For the second year in a row, Amazon has tried to brand its very own day by offering customers deep discounts on more than 100,000 items. This year, some of those discounts were met with a meh response, but hey, you can't please everyone, can you? Certainly not. But if you're Amazon, you can make sure that your deals actually work. After all, the key advantage of Amazon isn't selection, and it isn't price -- it's the company's relentless quest to be the most reliable retailer on Earth. So yeah, even small glitches are problem when you're Amazon, and they become an especially embarrassing problem when they occur on your branded holiday.

Mind the gender Gap

We'll overlook the spelling error, which is actually pretty funny when you consider the fact that the brand goofed on the name of a man who many consider to be among the smartest people to have ever lived. The real fail here, of course, was the rather obvious gender bias in the ad. Sure, those kinds of gendered assumptions have been essential to advertising for decades, but for an industry that prides itself on understanding consumer sentiment, missing such obvious gender bias comes across as remarkably tone deaf in 2016.

"Gap brand has always stood for individuality, optimism and creativity. Our intentions have always been to celebrate every child and we did not intend to offend anyone," Liz Nunan, a Gap spokesperson, said in a statement.

Intent is probably the right word here. It's hard to see how Gap would want to offend its customers. But what was lacking was a clear intent to understand how consumer values are changing. Producing such an ad is a mistake that can be forgiven, but failing to appreciate our society's evolving understanding of gender smacks of marketing malpractice.

Clean up your act

Advertising doesn't exist within a vacuum; it plays off of our culture, and in an increasingly global world, there are bound to be some cultural exchanges that get lost in translation. But the trouble with this Chinese detergent ad wasn't the fact that it would have struck a racist chord with an American audience; it's the fact that the Chinese audience the ad was actually intended for saw it as racist. As one person wrote on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, "Don't Chinese marketing people get any education about race?"

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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