The Most Offensive Ad Campaigns of 2011

How many offensive ad campaigns could companies create this year? Plenty.

Many businesses are realizing that consumers are looking for brands that care, brands that engage in dialogue, and brands that understand current trends. These companies are adapting to these new sensibilities and their businesses are thriving. Other companies have launched sexist ad campaigns, derided green actions, squelched customer’s comments and complaints, and mounted a merciless attack on local businesses, and consumers have spoken out.

Green is popular. Therefore, shaming green initiatives shows you are not only clueless, but part of the problem.

Despite the rising popularity (and wide media coverage) of bike sharing programs in cities and the number of cities looking to institute more bike lanes and encourage bicycle commuting, GM decided to run an ad campaign designed to make bicyclists feel ashamed of biking. The campaign, run in college magazines and aimed at current students and recent grads, shows a guy riding his bike and covering his face as a girl rides by in her (presumably GM) car. The tag line reads: Stop pedaling…start driving, and shows a picture of a smaller car, and a … truck.

There was an immediate outcry. Bicycling organizations, students and even professors condemned the ad and everything it stood for. GM backpedaled so fast that it immediately yanked the ads and began apologizing via Facebook and through every other type of social media it could find. The company responded to many of the negative comments and apologized.

Why do companies never tire of spitting on women and girls to sell stuff?

Dr. Pepper was tired of selling diet soda only to women. Who really wants to appeal to the demographic that makes over 80 percent of household buying decisions anyway? So they decided the way to appeal to men was to make a point of excluding women. On their Facebook page they even encouraged male-only users (it is off-limits to women) to play games where they shoot high heels, unicorns and rainbows.

Surprising no one but Dr. Pepper, the campaign didn’t appeal to most men (which is somewhat reassuring) and since it went out of its way to alienate women, no one was left to buy it.

Some companies still think it’s a good idea to sell items by sexualizing girls or promoting sexist stereotypes (or both at the same time). Abercrombie and Fitch has been a repeat offender, and this past year, family-oriented retailers Kmart and JCPenney joined the club. JCPenney quickly took this t-shirt out of inventory after being flooded with complaints, and a Kmart located in Australia took these thongs off the shelves for the same reason. The thongs are made by Kmart’s inhouse brand, Girl Xpress and the perception was that they were marketing them toward young girls. Kmart denied it, but wouldn’t state the customer age range Girl Xpress was targeting.

To be honest, it’s hard to tell what the point of this campaign was supposed to be, but whatever it was, everyone quickly lost sight of it. One blogger complained on Chapstick’s Facebook page about the use of this tacky, unattractive picture of a woman’s derriere in tight jeans. The company promptly deleted her comment (an irony many have pointed out considering the company’s invitation to be heard on their page). Ditto the negative comments that came after it. However, comments like, “after looking at this pic i know right where i wanna hide my chapstick,” were not deleted by the company.

Soon it was a battle to see who was faster, the commenters or the censors. Everyone forgot about the ad that sparked the war in the first place and directed their fury at the company who tried to control the conversation. That is something you just don’t do in social media and Chapstick came out of what could have been a minor embarrassment looking like an exceedingly foolish, 800-pound gorilla.

When you are Goliath, recruiting bystanders to pound David into dust makes you look like an even bigger bully.

It’s not enough that Amazon undercuts the prices of most local bookstores, but now they are encouraging consumers to go into local businesses, scan items and compare the price with the same item on Amazon. Since in many instances, Amazon doesn’t charge sales tax, the savings can be significant, causing many shoppers to not buy the item at the local business and buy the item online.

When promoting this new price check app, Amazon offered customers $5 for each item they bought using it (up to a total of $15). Forbes calls it the future of business, but in the face of Small Business Saturday and all the evidence that communities need to patronize and support local businesses to help local economies, Amazon’s campaign is as brazen as it is mercenary and cold-hearted.

Sometimes when you do everything right, it still goes wrong because your consumers can’t be bothered to read the label.

Coca-Cola thought it would be such a terrific holiday-cause marketing campaign to support polar bears, a species in dire need of help as well as animals that have been prominently featured in nostalgic Coke holiday ads in years past. They designed an eye-catching white can and prepared to watch awareness and profits grow. What happened? No one bothered to read the label, so Diet Coke (which is sold in a silver can) drinkers bought the white regular Coke by accident and then screamed about it.

Of course it is serious when diabetics or others with dietary restrictions consume something they shouldn’t due to a purchasing mistake, but many companies have very slight label differences that distinguish their products, but no one goes after them with the viciousness that Coke faced for simply offering the same drink in a special issue white can instead of a red one.

Many see this as a failed campaign by Coke, but did they really do anything wrong? Faced with an ugly public backlash, they have halted the manufacture of the white cans and are introducing a red polar bear can for the rest of the campaign. Now people can go back to not paying attention to what they buy again.


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images: bitzceltBikePortlandYouTube, Huffington Post,, The Real Time Report, iTunes, the rocketeer (via Flickr cc)

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.