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Interactive's most offensive campaigns

Interactive's most offensive campaigns Adam Broitman

As a marketer, I am often offended by initiatives that are useless, not well thought out, possess "whiz bang" but lack substance, or are just strategically unsound. I deplore marketing initiatives that, in effect, undermine the credibility of my chosen profession and put the marketing profession at large one notch above used car sales. (No offense to used car salespeople; you are all doing a great job.) But alas, marketing is my job and my passion, so I think about these types of things a lot.

I am not the only one who has been offended by marketing. In fact, there have been a number of cases over the last year in which marketing campaigns have disturbed, annoyed, and even repulsed people -- people who are outside of the marketing profession. Marketers may have gotten away with a great deal of offensive marketing in the past, but in a world powered by social computing and mass conversation, brands cannot afford to piss people off to the same degree as they once did.

In this article, I will discuss a number of marketing campaigns that offended large groups of people (as well as one or two campaigns that offended me personally). In doing so, I will try to unearth the specific reasons that people were offended, in the hope that you don't make the same mistakes.

There is no accounting for taste. (Or is there?)

Buzz creation and disruption are two popular concepts in modern marketing. It requires a great deal of creativity (and potentially some risk) to design communications that are cutting edge enough to stop consumers dead in their tracks, get them to pay attention, and entertain them to the point that they feel compelled to tell a friend about the campaign.

When marketers strive to create buzzworthy advertising, they often fail to adhere to the rules of taste. Defying the rules of taste is not a good idea for a soft drink company. Let's look at the recent Pepsi Max campaign. Although these print ads were not necessarily conceived as an online campaign, the resulting backlash -- whether Pepsis expected it or not -- most assuredly turned this campaign into an interactive marketing lesson:

I can see fit to applaud BBDO (the agency that created the campaign) for creating something edgy and visually on par with some of today's top pop and street art. But the bottom line is this: People do not take suicide lightly. I realize that this ad does not imply that suicide is funny, nor does it explicitly make light of the matter. But the question has to be asked, "How did Pepsi not know that people would be offended by this?"

Taking risks is one thing. Ignorance is another.

I cannot conclusively quantify the impact that this campaign had on people's overall perception of Pepsi. But I can say that Pepsi is at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) for a query that results in some pretty depressing content. Furthermore, people on Twitter did not find this ad amusing.

Check out this SERP for a query on "suicide advertising":

Many were deeply offended by this ad, and rightfully so.

Pepsi can apologize all it wants. (And it has.) But this ad is now part of its brand DNA. Some mistakes are not that easy to erase.

Key takeaways

  • Be mindful when taking chances; the memory of the web is permanent.

  • Some things are sacred, even if they are not sacred to you. 

The medium is the offensive.

Two of the cases in this article outline campaigns containing offensive messaging. In a post-McLuhan era, where the medium is the message, the misuse of a media vehicle can be just as offensive as copy and imagery. I think it's safe to say that most of us have been offended by telemarketers or the misuse of email (spam). But there is a new potential culprit in the world of soon-to-be-abused disruptive messaging, and this potential miscreant is the text message.

Recently, AT&T sent out text messages to a large number of its 75 million customers. The message was a promotion for "American Idol," a show that AT&T sponsors. (The company also plays a key role in the show, as only AT&T customers can vote for their favorite singers via text message.) Many of the mobile customers had not opted in to get this text, and the Twittersphere was, well, all atwitter!

Have a look at some of the conversation:

Sure, Twitter has been known, at times, to have a bit of a mob mentality. But in this case, it is apparent that these people were angry, and the ripples that began on Twitter created waves across the web.

Mobile marketing is becoming more and more commonplace, and I am sure mobile spam will get much worse before it gets better. I think the main issue here is this: Mobile phones are still very personal devices, and when a consumer signs up with a carrier, that person is putting a certain amount of trust in that company. If that trust is compromised, people will begin to look for alternatives.

Key takeaways

I wish you would just call me stupid to my face. (It would save a lot of time.)

Picture this: You stroll into a Best Buy (or any consumer electronics retail outlet -- I picked Best Buy, as we seem to be running out of options) looking for a digital video camera. A salesman tells you he has a great deal on a slick new model. As he begins to show this wonderment of digital technology, he alludes to the fact that the camera lacks certain key features -- features highlighted on the promo display for the next camera on the shelf. Curious, you look at that next camera on the shelf and notice that the camera with the more desirable features is $500 more than the camera you were being sold initially. You realize you have entered a bait-and-switch routine.

Has anything like this ever happened to you? Think back: How did it make you feel?

Lately, it seems that brands will do anything and everything in their power to get your attention. Some have even resorted to bait-and-switch tactics, as well as outright lies, in order to lure you into the sales funnel. I find these tactics offensive, and they make a brand look desperate. There is nothing fashionable about desperation, which is why I find it ironic that Australian fashion designer Witchery and its agency, Naked Communications, decided to pull the following stunt.

Have a look at this video, make some notes on your feelings, and then let's chat:

Does this thing look authentic to you? It sure doesn't look authentic to me. In fact, it reeks of me-too viralism. (I realize viralism is not a word. But its use is just as silly as the marketers out there seeking viral success without good content.)

At first I thought, "Perhaps the agency meant this to be whimsically transparent." But somehow I doubt that was the case. (If I am wrong, I invite the brand or agency to correct me, and I will ask iMedia to create an addendum to this section.) In the absence of any information that would lead us to believe this was anything but an attempt to fool people, let's proceed under the assumption that that was the case.

Perhaps you think this campaign is clever. Maybe you think it was silly. Or maybe you agree that it is misleading. But offensive? Allow me to elaborate.

Here are my reasons for calling the Witchery campaign offensive:

  • It attempts to undermine my intelligence.

  • It makes the underlying statement, "Men are weak when it comes to pretty blonde girls, and it is easy to trick them."

  • It is an utter a waste of time. I would prefer if the company said, "Here is a pretty blonde; do you want to buy a coat?" Who knows, that might actually work.

  • It creates a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario. Personally, I am a romantic at heart. When brands cut into the online conversational channels, they undermine the credibility of the channel, rendering it useless for real situations. I hate when brands think they can steamroll over consumer conversations and make a mockery of the human condition.

The video is not the only piece to this initiative. A website was created that cleverly (?) uses an Apple .ME account:

I have to give some credit to the Naked team -- there are some clever elements in this campaign. But the bottom line is that it is a farce, and I am sure that those who were fooled by it did not enjoy finding out that:

  1. Their dream girl with the coat is a corporate shill, or

  2. This reverse-Cinderella storybook tale was nothing more than corporate America abusing our emotions. (Remember how mad Oprah was when she found out that "Angel at the Fence" was a farce?)

That being said, I cannot imagine how anyone was fooled by this, as the site had pictures like this on it:

 Uh-huh. This looks authentic.

 ...and finally, the truth is told!

Key takeaways

  • There is a fine line between a puzzle and a lie. Make sure you are on the right side of that line. 

  • Conversational media is sacred to those who use it. Be careful not to take advantage.

  • If you are going to try to trick people into believing an actress is a real person, find someone who can really act.

Don't put words in my mouth.

Have you ever heard the phrase, "Don't put words in my mouth"? Most of us have been on both ends of this phrase. As you probably know, this phrase makes reference to an attempt to fabricate the voice of another person -- a common practice in marketing.

For decades marketers were able to get away with fabricating the voice of their target audiences. They would frequently portray a given market segment in the way that best suited the needs of the brand. Consumers were not always empowered to talk to one another about how they felt about marketing messages, and often their voices were never heard. Enter Twitter.

Most of us are probably familiar with the recent "Motrin Moms" debacle, in which Motrin and its agency, Taxi-NYC, attempted to create a viral video campaign. (It makes me cringe just writing the words "viral video.") This 47-second video fabricated the voice of mothers who wear slings to carry their babies.

The video portrays these sling-wearing mothers as victims of fashion who are making desperate attempts to look like "official moms." There is little I can say about the details of this campaign that has not already been covered by Jeremiah Owyang, Laura Fitton, and The New York Times. Still, the reason I am bringing up an initiative that has already been beaten to a pulp is to mention three core marketing flaws that many overlook when discussing this campaign.

This campaign was fundamentally flawed for three reasons:

  • It incorrectly fabricated the voice of the consumer.

  • The time was not taken to properly listen to the target audience.

  • Tactics (create a viral video) were put before strategy (open a dialogue with mothers to sell more Motrin).

The result of this initiative was truly viral -- but in a completely different way than Motrin intended.

Let's go to the videotape (for those living under a rock who have not seen this):

Key takeaways

  • Viral is not a strategy.

  • It is not possible to listen with your mouth open.

There are a lot of ways to get people's attention. You can make people laugh, think, smile, or even cry. But remember: Attention is only part of the battle. It takes a true positive impact and added value to win the war.

Adam Broitman is strategy director/ringleader at Crayon.

Recognized by iMedia’s top 25 Internet Marketing Leaders and Innovators, Broitman is known for devising effective creative strategies that live at the cross section of technology and marketing. As Vice President and Senior Business Leader of...

View full biography


to leave comments.

Commenter: Olga Kostrova

2011, February 08

Ok, this is my favorite topic really. :-)
Adam, you are wonderful, but bringing the subject of morale to methods of influencing the crowd is as "deadly ended" as putting a Christina and a Muslim in one room and taking on a task to rewrite the Bible and Koran till the sun is up the next day.

What is offensive to one simply edgy to another. What is morale to one, is ridiculous to another. What is virtue to one self delusion to another.

The problem of an average (ignorant) human is that he takes life, him/herself and everything around to literary and too serious.

Life is the game. Nothing is important. And yes, I hear a few million people want to jump in the argument on this one. Well, jump then! then jump again, and again. And that's truly helps to clear the mind from all sort of conditioning and false belief system.

I guarantee it!


Commenter: Ivan Rus

2011, February 08

While I appreciate your attempt to call to common sense, it's unfortunately very subjective.

Commenter: Kevin Doohan

2009, March 22

thx Adam for the response. I didn't find your post itself offensive, I just generally dislike "10 worsts" and critiquing campaigns after the fact. But I've done it myself recently with the P&G tidejack...and here you're inspiring dialogue. So it's all good in the end. I appreciate the offer but certainly no apology needed.

Motrin remains a sore spot for me. I've spoken with plenty of Moms who simply didn't care about it or who identified with the campaign in a positive way. But the militant moms insist that every moment lugging a baby around is joyful... I'm not buying it. Motrin was onto something identifying the problem and offering Motrin as a solution. Unfortunately, there was little upside in sticking with the campaign for JnJ as the media picked up on the reactions of the mommy zealots so it was killed. Very sad...

Commenter: Adam Broitman

2009, March 22


First of all, thank you!

If there is one thing I hate, it is glad mouthing for it's own sake. Just as I found certain campaigns offensive, you found my writing offensive; I would say that validates it's worth (not whether or not it is good, just it's value as a means of creating discourse).

As for the Motrin campaign, sure, there was research done, but I believe that even Motrin admits there could have been more research done. As for you not thinking the campaign was offensive, well--you are not a mom, sir :) I did not find it offensive until a had a number of moms explain it to me (as I am not a mom either--although I have been referred to as a mutha *#$^@)

I also agree with you that it was a vocal minority that attacked the campaign, but it just goes to show you that a vocal minority of influentials can make a big sound.

Finally, in response to your question about crayon, we are doing some very interesting, unorthodox work. If you had to the JaffeJuice blog, Joe mentions some things we are working on; feel free to give us feedback. If there is one thing that Joe preaches, it is the power of conversation. We always welcome constructive criticism.

In conclusion, I know I was a little harsh here--but the article was meant to be light hearted and underscore some elements that could have been executed better. I am sorry if you were offended in any way.

Commenter: Kevin Doohan

2009, March 21

I hate articles like this. I know we have to learn from mistakes so it's good to look at them but it is so very easy to look at others' work and critique it after the fact. "10 bests" are so much better to read than "10 worsts"

And really, the Motrin campaign? I liked it and I'm not ashamed to say so. I bet that campaign was grounded in excellent consumer insights. I bet that the video used verbatim quotes from Moms who were honest about the less fun aspects of baby handling. Unfortunately, the campaign got hijacked by militant mom twitterers and the minority view became a buzzworthy campaign killing meme. I wonder...was it a truly bad campaign or are advertisers just not experienced enough in dealing with groundswells in any way other than to cave to the pressure of a vocal minority.

btw adam, would love to see your most risky or aggressive campaigns from crayon offered up for a critique.

best regards,

Commenter: Adam Broitman

2009, March 21

Thanks Aygul!

Commenter: Aygul Umurzakova

2009, March 21


Very up-to-date article concerning the situation
in interactive media/ advertising campaigns.

I so agree with you. This Pepsi campaign
looks like just creative brainstorming of the single agency. They forget about mass market and their needs.
I liked old Pepsi Campaign "Generation Next" with
Spice Girls. This campaign really ignited and was so
I believe that real brands still remain genuine and have long-lasting effects despite all those short-term buzz
done by unknowns.

Commenter: Torgeir Hansson

2009, March 20

I have never understood in the first place how faked authenticity could build a brand.

Has "juvenile rube" become a recognized media target?

Commenter: Nixon Lee

2009, March 18

Great article Adam. Showed my wife he motrin ad she simply said BS

Commenter: Adam Broitman

2009, March 17


Yes, DNA might be a bit strong. I am working on a post over at my blog (amediacirc.us) that explores the notion of "the memory of the web" a bit more; perhaps that will clarify some things.

As for the fact that many of these were more annoying than offensive, I agree to a point. I have to admit, it was really difficult finding examples of campaigns that were truly offensive (in a general sense).

That said, something like the witchery campaign was not offensive on first glance, but the more I studied it, the more offended I got. It made me feel as though the campaign stated;

"Men think with their #$%^" (may or may not be true)
"Consumers are stupid" (that means we are all stupid)
"Blondes have more fun" (no comment)

All stereotypes that, I feel do not serve a brand marketing initiative well.

So yes, Gavin, I agree that many of these campaigns are not like the Pepsi example; but I do feel they offend in a different, more subtle (but just as negative) way.

Commenter: Adam Broitman

2009, March 17

Thanks David!

Here is the link once again in case anyone missed it


Commenter: Gavin Klose

2009, March 17

Thank you for this article, Adam.

I agree that "brand DNA" is possibly a bit dramatic - how about "brand after-taste"?

I was probably less "offended" and more annoyed by your well chosen examples. Where these ideas fail is that they are "advertising" ideas and not ideas that actually provide any benefit. The more marketing taps into an idea that solves a problem or gives the target audience something that they want - the more likely it is to be welcomed and shared to others.

Commenter: Adam Broitman

2009, March 16

haha, great point Jenn! We get so wrapped up in the theories related to marketing, we forget what it is to be human.

How about your third grader works with me on my next piece :)

Commenter: Jennifer Kim

2009, March 16

Excellent article! While reading it, I found myself saying the same thing to my 3rd grader...

- Do you homework first
- Be sincere
- Don't ever lie
- Respect other people's space
- Don't annoy them
- Clean up (your mess and mistakes you made)

Marketing at the end of the day (regardless of the name you put before it) is all about building relationships and many often forget to use life's simple rules. Like you said before, 'persistence' is the key. I wonder if my 3rd grader is listening and learning.

Commenter: David Turner

2009, March 16

Totally agree Adam and I feel you pain about bad marketing campaigns.

I felt I should add some background to the Witchery campaign for the benifit of your readers. This campaign started its main life (or at least got a huge boost) when it was planted to the media.

A major Sydney based newspaper picked up the story and ran with it which you can see here. http://tinyurl.com/dhclvc This lead the campaign to have an air of credibility which it should not have had.

Really thought this is basic sales 101 you don't lie or mislead the consumer its just bad practice.

Commenter: Adam Broitman

2009, March 16

Great points Chris.

I feel that everything that a brand does is embedded in their DNA to some degree. Sure, this was a blunder and this may wind up being a very small part of Pepsi's DNA (in fact, the reparations post campaign may prove to be a positive part of Pepsi's brand DNA) but it is still part of their history.

Perhaps my point was a bit harsh, but I was trying to do just that; make a point. Cheers.

Commenter: Christopher Mallardi

2009, March 16

Offensive? Yes.
Poor brand management? Check.

But this campaign being suddenly ingrained into Pepsi's DNA might be a bit over dramatized when taking the long view. There isnt a company or marketer out there that hasnt made a blunder they wish they could recall.

Stay focused on your message your audience and use common sense.

Commenter: Adam Broitman

2009, March 16

thanks for the Tip Tim. Jamie, I totally agree, it was a 360 flaw!

Commenter: dennis mcdonald

2009, March 16

Add to your list the following two items:

(1) artificially inflating pageview stats by requiring multiple "next page" links in a single article.
(2) requiring people to SIGN IN to leave a comment on a web post.

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria VIrginia USA

Commenter: Joseph Szala

2009, March 16

Awesome article.

I would agree I was offended by the Witchery ad, except it was so insanely boring I couldn't even watch the whole thing. Who wants to watch a bumbling idiot ramble about a "situation" for over a minute? Fail.

Commenter: Tim Trent

2009, March 16

You missed the Heinz Deli Mayo alleged gay kiss advert that caused a petition, a UK Parliament Early Day Motion, a facebook pressure group, and total silence from Heinz on the real issue - not the advert (poor, badly executed, unproductive0 but the apology for withdrawal "We're sorry the advert offended you" when it really did not!

That man in the jacket thing was so long and boring I gave up, skimmed through it and yawned a lot.

Good article, good fun

Commenter: Phil Darby

2009, March 16

Hi Adam

I don't disagree with what you say, but the Witchery campaign is a non-idea that I am suprised even managed to survive beyond the brainstoming.

This campaign is so stultifyingly boring that the carbon footprint involved in its production is far more offensive than the fact that if I hadn't fallen asleep half way through the movie I would have discovered it was a scam. As if I cared!

I posted a while back on my blog about the 85% of viral campaigns that lose money becase the pepetrators forget, that like any other communication, if you don't have a big idea nobody's going to care enough to forward it. Far from the "big idea" Naked clearly didn't have any idea with this one!

Commenter: Jamie Driver

2009, March 16

Great article Adam, I 100% agree with you that the Witchery campaign reeks of viralism. Plus - it isn't even that interesting or engaging to begin with as a concept, let alone a flawed execution.