7 Biggest Marketing Fails in History: Analyzing Lessons From the Industry

7 Biggest Marketing Fails in History: Analyzing Lessons From the Industry
18 March, 2024 • ... • 115 views
Ana Balashova
by Ana Balashova

Imagine launching a campaign you’re certain will be a hit, only to watch it become one of the highly publicized marketing fails. From misunderstood messages to campaigns that missed the mark, history is rich with lessons begging to be learned. This post isn’t about finger-pointing, though. We are taking you on a tour of the most monumental marketing fails, dissecting the missteps and mining them for the golden lessons they hold. So, by the end, hopefully, you and your business won’t fall into the same traps.

Why do marketing campaigns fail?

Sometimes, even the most promising ideas crash and burn, leaving marketers scratching their heads and asking, “Where did we go wrong?” The reasons can be as varied as the campaigns themselves, but they often circle back to a few common pitfalls:

  • Unrealistic expectations. Setting your marketing goals too high can lead to disappointment.
  • The lack of budgeting. Without adequate funds, a campaign might not reach its full potential, lacking in reach and impact.
  • Customer experience troubles. If the process of making a purchase is as complicated as solving a Rubik’s cube, expect customers to head elsewhere, even in spite of all your marketing efforts.
  • Wrong positioning and messaging. Your brand’s message only resonates when it aligns with your audience’s, your marketing personas’ expectations and values.
  • Audience misunderstanding of the campaign. Sometimes, despite a brand’s best efforts, people misinterpret the advertising, warranting an apology and a reassessment of the approach.

And that’s just to name a few. But remember, every marketing fail, whether it’s by a startup owner or a big business, is unique and teaches us something new. Each mistake has its own story that can show us what not to do. Let’s take a closer look at some big brands’ marketing mess-ups to see exactly where things went wrong and how to keep our business from making the same mistakes.

Seven biggest marketing fails

Diving into the world of marketing blunders and similar topics, we’re about to explore some of the most “Wait, what?” moments the industry has ever seen. From ads that made us facepalm to campaigns that left many people asking, “Who greenlit this?” These seven stories are the marketing equivalent of accidentally texting your boss instead of your friend. 

Yet the biggest marketing fails have the same causes as the small ones. They are just more public. So you can not only laugh about them but also learn from them. Grab some popcorn as we take a closer look at these unforgettable fails, and find out how they can teach us to craft campaigns that hit the mark. (Or at least avoid the ones that don’t). 

Burger King: Feminism went wrong

In March 2021, Burger King’s UK Twitter (X) account decided to celebrate Women’s Day with a recipe for disaster rather than a burger, serving up a tweet that read, “Women belong in the kitchen.” 

Burger King’s marketing fail tweet and the following tweets clarifying the meaning of the first one
Source: X

Intended as a bait-and-switch to highlight a scholarship program for female chefs, the tweet instead led to a storm of backlash. The follow-up tweets, meant to clarify and promote gender diversity in the culinary world, were lost as people saw the initial message as tasteless and sexist.

This marketing misadventure teaches us a crucial lesson: words matter, especially on social media. Burger King’s attempt at a bold statement on Twitter ended up overcooked, showing that what might be a zesty idea in one context can easily become unpalatable in another.

Lesson learned: Know your business audience and choose the topics and words of your social media posts carefully, ensuring your message adds flavor without leaving a bad taste. Check out Selzy’s other articles if you want to see good Women’s Day marketing examples and learn what women think about equality and inclusion.

Pepsi: Commercializing protests

In 2017, Pepsi decided to venture into social activism topics with a fizz but ended up with a flat outcome.

The brand released a commercial depicting Kendall Jenner leaving a photo shoot to join a protest. Ultimately, she handed a can of Pepsi to a police officer, seemingly resolving the tension. 

The ad wanted the audience to sing along to “Kumbaya” but people got upset instead. The audience didn’t appreciate the oversimplification of the Black Lives Matter movement. The backlash on Instagram and Facebook led Pepsi to pull the ad and issue an apology, particularly to the movement’s activists and, awkwardly, to Jenner herself.

Critics, including Martin Luther King’s daughter, highlighted the ad’s insensitivity, with the final scene drawing direct comparisons to a powerful image of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge — a true moment of peaceful protest that became iconic within the movement.

Lesson learned: In Pepsi’s attempt to bottle peace, love, and understanding, they forgot their audience’s taste for authenticity and respect for serious social issues. This marketing blunder teaches us the importance of understanding the weight of social movements and making sure our campaigns respect and acknowledge their significance without trying to capitalize on them. 

American Airlines: Сheap wanderlusts disaster

The AAirpass,  launched by American Airlines in the 1980s for $250,000, was a groundbreaking offer granting buyers unlimited first-class flights for life. (With the inflation rate rocketing to more than 240% since 1981, that $250,000 ticket would now cost a dizzying $850,583.31 for the reference). The company was struggling financially at the time and wanted to gain profit from this premium offer quickly.

A sample AAirpass card photo and an American Airlines plane
Source: EaseMyTrip

Dream deal, right? Well, it soared a bit too close to the sun. High flyers like businessman Mark Cuban and baseball player Willie Mays jetted off so frequently that the deal cost American Airlines dearly, with some enthusiasts flying enough to rack up costs of $1 million per year for the airline.

The sheer volume of flights AAirpass holders took saw American Airlines bleeding millions annually. Attempts to revoke these golden tickets landed the airline in a legal tailspin with outraged customers. Surprisingly the program lasted for a very long time. Only by 1994, did the company stop selling these passes. 

Lesson learned: Launching a campaign like the AAirpass without a safety net can lead to a marketing disaster. It’s important to anchor high-value incentives with conditions to prevent potential abuse and thoroughly calculate the profits and costs. Testing the waters with a pilot program before full launch could have ensured the strategy’s financial safety.  

Coca-Cola: Messing up with the classics

In 1985, Coca-Cola’s bold move to revamp its classic formula and introduce New Coke stirred up more than just bubbles. Despite conducting over 200,000 taste tests that suggested people preferred the sweeter New Coke, the brand overlooked one critical thing: those tests were sips, not full drinks.

Coca-Cola, brimming with confidence from taste tests, didn’t anticipate the uproar. Fans were dialing in their discontent, flooding the company with 1,500 daily calls. 79 days later, the company had to revert to its original formula and product branding. 

Lesson learned: Understanding your audience goes deeper than what they say they like in a moment. It’s about the memories, the moments, and, yes, the taste they’ve grown to love. Before you think of changing what works, remember that if your brand is loved, you should think twice before a major overhaul. And check your research insights twice.

Bud Light: Weak allyship

In 2023, Bud Light’s attempt to champion inclusivity by partnering with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney quickly fermented into a marketing misstep, serving as a cautionary tale on the potency of purpose-driven campaigns. This seemingly groundbreaking campaign led the company to spiral into a 13.5% dive in revenue and a 29% tumble in U.S. dollar sales in four short weeks. 

Bud Light Instagram campaign with Dylan Mulvaney
Source: Instagram

The partnership, meant to celebrate diversity, spotlighted the brand’s struggle navigating social commentary’s choppy waters. It ended up with Bud Light losing its crown as America’s best-selling beer — a title it had proudly held for over two decades.

Instead of holding ground and standing up for the values it decided to promote, the company backtracked. Trying to appease the audience, it released a patriotic ad that was met with anger.

Lesson learned: This case is a reminder that the path to purpose-driven branding is fraught with pitfalls. You must understand your audience’s tastes and the importance of standing firmly by your campaign’s message. 

Adidas: Ignoring the signs

Adidas YEEZY 450 resin sneakers
Source: Adidas

In the high-stakes world of celebrity endorsements, Adidas’s YEEZY sneakers in collaboration with Ye (Kanye West) was like striking gold, rivaling even Nike’s iconic partnership with Michael Jordan. This product contributed an estimated eye-popping 40% of profit. By 2023, however, this golden partnership had tarnished, not due to a dip in sneaker sales but from the corrosive effect of controversy. Ye’s series of troubling antisemitic statements turned this profitable collaboration into a cautionary tale, costing Adidas a $2 billion shortfall. Despite previous whispers and complaints about Ye’s behavior, it took a public outcry for Adidas to cut ties. 

Lesson learned: Selecting the right influencer for your business is not an easy task. Celebrity endorsement opportunities have to make sense and require more than just a compass pointed toward profit. It demands a moral compass, too. Aligning with stars whose values reflect your brand ensures that they will illuminate your brand positively rather than cast it into shadows. 

Volkswagen: Playing dirty

Back in 2016, Volkswagen found itself in hot water, big time. It all started when they decided to play a bit fast and loose with their diesel vehicle emissions tests. They rigged their cars to pass environmental standards tests and then led a huge marketing campaign advertising the low emissions. That’s the premise of the notoriously famous “Dieselgate.” And it was a marketing disaster that made VW look more villain than an eco-hero.

Here is one of the ads about VW diesel vehicles released the same year the scandal broke:

The fallout was massive. Volkswagen’s sales hit the brakes, especially in the U.S. and Europe, as trust in the brand tanked. To settle the score, they had to cough up a staggering $14.7 billion, covering fines, legal fees, and a fund to buy back or fix the “rogue” vehicles (because, let’s face it, those cars were acting more like undercover agents than trustworthy rides). This cash also went into cleaning up the pollution mess they made and investing in cleaner vehicle technology.

Lesson learned: The story’s moral is clear: honesty is not just the best policy. It’s the only policy if you want to avoid becoming an environmental and financial cautionary tale. In today’s digital age, where transparency is king and consumers are keen detectives, attempting to pull the wool over the world’s eyes is a sure path to scandal.

How to avoid marketing fails?

Steering clear of the marketing mishaps that have capsized others can send you floating through the stormy seas of marketing. Here are some valuable lessons to consider:  

  • Understand the human aspect: Remember, at the heart of every successful marketing strategy is a pulse — your audience’s. Dive deep into the psychology and behaviors of your target demographic. Understanding your target audience’s currents, tides, and undercurrents can mean the difference between success and failure.
  • Budget strategically: Treat your marketing budget like a pie. You wouldn’t eat it all in one bite, right? Spread it thoughtfully across different channels — social media (Facebook, X, Instagram, etc,) or that holiday email marketing calendar — ensuring each leads to a satisfying ROI.
  • Align with long-term goals: Align your marketing goals directly with your company’s objectives to maintain a focused approach. Additionally, regularly review and adjust these goals to respond to any external changes and keep your marketing strategy agile.
  • Stay true to your values: Authenticity is your North Star. In a world where trust can be elusive, staying true to your brand’s values ensures your audience never feels betrayed.

By embracing these simple strategies, you’re not just avoiding marketing fails but probably going to be ahead of many competitors.

Final thoughts

To avoid marketing flops, it makes sense for anyone, including startup owners and marketers working for a large business, to take notes on past mistakes. Bud Light, Adidas, Volkswagen, and others — big names, big blunders, big lessons. Each case teaches the importance of knowing your audience and staying true to your brand’s essence, no matter what are you working at: whether it’s an email marketing strategy or a new advertising campaign. These stories remind us that successful marketing is built on authenticity, respect, and careful strategy. Let’s keep these lessons in mind, aiming for messages that connect genuinely and positively:

  • Choose your words carefully.
  • Respect social movements.
  • Plan your budget.
  • Think twice before changing what’s working well.
  • Always keep your audience’s values and tastes in mind.
  • Choose partnerships carefully.
  • Don’t cheat. 
18 March, 2024
Article by
Ana Balashova
I'm a seasoned PR and marketing pro turned tech writer, with a decade of experience working with big names like DuPont, Avon, Evernote, TradingView, and SAP. I've also dived into the world of crypto startups, contributing to several blockchain publications. Now, I'm bringing my passion for technology, entrepreneurship, and marketing to Selzy. Here, I combine my love for writing and excitement about contributing to the growth of a great product.
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