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6 controversial marketing campaigns that got big brands sued

6 controversial marketing campaigns that got big brands sued David Zaleski

Toyota gets sued for its "Your Other You" email campaign of terror

Here's a marketing campaign that left one woman literally afraid for her life.

In 2009, Amanda Duick sued Toyota for $10 million over its harassing "Your Other You" email campaign that marketed the new Toyota Matrix. In case you missed it, here's how it worked.

Image source here.

In the prank, a friend would sign you up on the Toyota Matrix website to participate and provide Toyota with a slew of your personal and private information including your email (sound fun so far?). You would then unwittingly get an email linking to a webpage entitled "personality evaluation." Basically, after taking the personality evaluation, the only way to continue to the next page was to agree to pages of "terms of service." However, in those terms was a clause saying that you agree to "receive email messages, phone calls, and/or text messages during the 5-day experience."

Image source here.

Confused? So was Amanda Duick. After accepting the terms of service, she began receiving harassing emails from a man named "Sebastian Bowler," a 25-year-old Englishman who "enjoyed drinking alcohol to excess" and had a dog named Trigger (yes, like a gun).

Who was Sebastian Bowler? Toyota.

The last email Amanda Duick received on day five was a link to a video explaining that the entire sequence of emails had been an elaborate prank to promote the new Toyota Matrix.

While many other people found this prank funny, Amanda Duick did not. She filed a lawsuit claiming "intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and false advertising."

Did Toyota take guerilla marketing too far? In an age where advertising has to get more visceral and dramatic, a lot of brands are turning to conducting pranks on their customers for commercial footage or basic entertainment value. The line is blurry and based off of what happened to Toyota, the benefit might not outweigh the cost. If you're a brand looking to hop on board with prank marketing, you might want to look very carefully at your approach.

50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) sues Taco Bell for asking him to change his name to 99 Cents

If you're a brand looking to get some free PR by name-dropping celebrities, consider a word of warning.

In July of 2008, Taco Bell created an advertisement asking rapper 50 Cent (whose real name is Curtis Jackson) to change his name to 79 Cent, 89 Cent, or 99 Cent for a day to promote its lower cost food items such as cinnamon twists, crunchy tacos, and bean burritos. In exchange for the one-day name change, Taco Bell offered to donate $10,000 to a charity of his choice.

Sounds good right? Curtis Jackson didn't think so. In fact, he didn't even know about the offer.

After the advertisement was released without his knowledge, the rapper filed a lawsuit against the fast-food conglomerate for using his name without his permission. Apparently, Taco Bell sent a joke letter to news outlets requesting the name change without first even sending it to Curtis Jackson. How much was he claiming in damages? $4 million. Yep, that's right. For simply mentioning his name in an ad, Taco Bell was slapped with a multi-million dollar suit, and in 2009 lost to the rapper. Taco Bell was forced to pay an undisclosed amount to Curtis Jackson for misleading his fans into thinking that he was "selling out" as a paid endorser.

The lesson: If you want to use a celebrity to promote your product, get permission first. Brands can be sneaky. Just by mentioning 50 Cent in its advertisement, Taco Bell was perceived in court to be trying to tap his fans and turn them into customers. 50 Cent was not amused, and at the end of the day, scored a major payout.

Michael Kors sues Costco for misleading handbag advertisement

Here's a story you should be sure to tell your marketing campaign's graphic designer.

On April 16, 2013, Costco sent a Mother's Day email blast promoting discounted rates on a variety of designer handbags. One of the images in the email was of a handbag featuring the iconic gold Michael Kors logo. The ad boasts prices "as low as $99.99" for the merchandise. For a Michael Kors accessory, that's a pretty sweet deal.

Image source here.

The problem? Not only do Michael Kors handbags sell for way more than $99.99, but Costco also isn't even an authorized retailer of the brand.


Michael Kors accused Costco of conducting a "bait-and-switch-scheme" to lure customers into its stores under the false pretenses that they could purchase the pricy designer merchandise at extremely discounted rates. It also accused Costco of trying to lure customers away from actual Michael Kors retailers and into Costco stores based off a lie. The handbag-fashion brand even sent its officials to 19 Costco stores to confirm that they did not carry Michael Kors products. The lawsuit sought to stop Costco from advertising its products, recoup lost profits, and some punitive damages.

The popular wholesaler has been in legal trouble with brands such as Tiffany & Co, Saint Laurent, and Omega in the past. These accusations prove that if you are going to promote products in images or video, don't be lazy or manipulative in your approach. Stick to the truth, and you'll avoid a hefty and embarrassing lawsuit.

Airbnb sued by rival HomeAway for its birdhouse marketing campaign

Who knew a birdhouse could cause so much trouble?

In 2013, the vacation rental service HomeAway filed a lawsuit against Airbnb alleging that Airbnb's birdhouse marketing campaign is a trademark infringement on its own logo, an iconic blue birdhouse.

Image source here.

The Airbnb campaign named "Home to You" features several custom-made birdhouses that depict a variety of popular rental properties that Airbnb has to offer its guests. It is the first major national marketing campaign conducted by the young company.

Image source here.

HomeAway claimed that Airbnb created the birdhouse centered theme for its first national marketing campaign with "full knowledge of HomeAway's ownership and extensive use of the Birdhouse Mark and with the intent to trade off of the goodwill that HomeAway has developed in its Birdhouse Mark through years of extensive use and promotion." HomeAway also claims that Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky visited HomeAway's headquarters and borrowed imagery from its iconic birdhouse theme.

While the case was quietly settled for a confidential sum, it serves as a good example of how marketing can sometimes unknowingly (or consciously) emulate other brands and campaigns when creating a unique angle and memorable imagery in a campaign. Make sure your brand isn't unwittingly stealing from another brand -- especially direct competitors.

Dannon sued for $45 million after falsely claiming Activia Yogurt helps digestive regularity

A little fibbing in your marketing campaign could cost you millions.

Remember Activia? You know, the super healthy yogurt brand that advertised that it contained special bacterial ingredients that strengthen the immune system and help regulate digestion?

Yep, it turns out that was bogus.

In February 2010, a Cleveland judge ordered Dannon to pay customers up to $45 million in damages in a class action lawsuit, claiming that the yogurt manufacturer was making health and benefits claims that it hadn't proven in the medical community. Dannon was also ordered to change its health claims for the product on the packaging and website.

For two years, the company had advertised that its yogurt had been clinically proven to help strengthen immune systems and regulate indigestion. Many customers with stomach issues bought the product based off these claims and experienced no change in their condition. Dannon still stands by its claims and says that it finally settled the lawsuit to avoid litigation costs, and not as an admission of wrongdoing or promoting a misleading product.

Honesty in your marketing can go a long way, and if your brand is making claims that cannot be supported, it could lead to a lot of pissed off customers -- and perhaps a court date.

Facebook sued for allegedly making a man falsely "like" USA Today

Following the ups and downs of Facebook's marketing strategies is pretty overwhelming, and stories like this don't help.

You know when you see on your Facebook news feed that your friend has "liked" a product, service, or brand? What if your friend never actually clicked the "like" button in the first place? That's exactly what one Colorado man claimed happened when he was surprised to learn from a friend that he had "liked" USA Today's page on the popular social network.

Anthony Ditirro claims that he never clicked "like" on the newspaper's Facebook page or has even been to the publication's website.

Image source here.

The incident has prompted Ditirro to file a lawsuit seeking a whopping $750 for the misrepresentation of his newspaper preference.

Facebook has a long history of allegedly violating the privacy of its users to leverage personal information for advertising and marketing purposes. This includes a $20 million class-action settlement over "sponsored stories" on users' news feeds.

Privacy is a huge concern for consumers, and as long as it helps target relevant ads, many brands have been willing to fudge their own rules for years. Increasingly, consumers are taking their power back through litigation. Don't let your brand be put in the awkward position of having to defend its targeting practices with perceived customer manipulation.

David Zaleski is associate media producer at iMedia.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Stomach ache" image via Shutterstock. "Taco Bell Menu," "50 Cent in concert," and "Dannon products" images via Creative Commons.

David Zaleski is the Media Production Supervisor for iMedia Communications, Inc. and Comexposium USA. He graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a BA in Film & Television Production, specializing in editing, animation, and...

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