Bad Marketing Advice in Action (and What We Can Learn)

Bad marketing advice can make or break a brand. If marketers sidestep well-meaning but counterproductive suggestions, they’re better positioned to capture consumer interest.

bad marketing advice in action represented by a sad face and hand holding a bullhorn

What happens if they take this marketing advice to heart? Spoiler alert: It’s not great.

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Here are 11 examples of bad marketing advice in action — and what we can learn from these customer-facing failures.

11 Examples of Marketing Advice Gone Wrong

Read on for our list of 11 bad marketing moments, or use the jump links to find your favorite example.

  1. The KFC Calendar Clash
  2. The Gap Logo Lesson
  3. The Pepsi Protest Problem
  4. The Burger King Tweet Trainwreck
  5. The Dove Double-Take
  6. The Bing Brand Debacle
  7. The Huggies Hard Sell
  8. The EA Criminal Catastrophe
  9. The Kenneth Cole Cairo Crash
  10. The Heineken Beer Breakdown
  11. The Audi Audacity

1. The KFC Calendar Clash

On November 9th, 2022, KFC sent a mobile notification to its app users that encouraged them to “treat themselves” some great fried chicken and commemorate Kristallnacht.

The problem? This isn’t a fun German holiday — it’s known as the Night of Broken Glass and is associated with a wave of Nazi attacks against Jewish German populations.

Whoops.

For KFC, the problem stemmed from semi-automated content creation. Put simply, a content creation bot saw that Kristallnacht was listed on the German calendar and assumed it was important. It was — just not for the right reasons.

What we can learn:

Here, the bad advice is taking humans out of the loop. A quick look by staff could have prevented this problem, but instead KFC traded speed for sales. Best bet? If someone tells you to cut out the human connection, don’t take it to heart.

2. The Gap Logo Lesson

From 1990 until 2010, the Gap used the same, familiar logo: Its name in white lettering on a blue background. Sure, it wasn’t the most exciting logo but it was simple, easy to recognize, and generally well-liked.

On October 6th, 2010, however, the Gap debuted a new logo: One with their name in a different font, in black, and with a small blue square in the upper-right corner.

Customer backlash was instant and savage. While Gap tried to salvage the situation by treating customer complaints as a crowd-sourcing exercise, the original logo was back by October 12, 2010.

What we can learn:

While there’s nothing wrong with a change, there’s no reason to fix what isn’t broken. If your logo or name or website is performing well, leave it alone — at least until you’ve gotten a solid amount of customer feedback.

3. The Pepsi Protest Problem

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Pepsi has always struggled to match the market reach of its arch-rival Coca-Cola.

While a 2017 commercial featuring Kendall Jenner got the brand some much-needed attention, Pepsi executives would have probably preferred if everyone forgot the ad existed.

Why? Because it featured a smiling Kendall Jenner at an unnamed protest. Jenner makes her way to the front of the protest line, approaches a police officer, and hands him a Pepsi. He takes it, and the crowd cheers.

Put bluntly, it was a terrible look for the brand. With protests on the rise across the United States as social tensions boiled over, the ad seemed glib and dismissive of the reality that often comes with protests.

Martin Luther King’s daughter tweeted about the commercial, making it clear that Pepsi missed the mark.

What we can learn:

While real-life events can be a great catalyst for marketing efforts, brands need to consider if their product makes sense in context.

Are protestors joyfully drinking Pepsi at events? Not likely. Does Pepsi have anything to do with civil unrest? Nope. For brands, it’s often better to stay in their lane than try to shoehorn in social justice.

4. The Burger King Tweet Trainwreck

On International Women’s Day in 2021, Burger King UK sent out this gem of a Tweet:

“Women belong in the kitchen.”

It was immediately followed up by two further Tweets that made it clear the first was a joke and that the company was actually trying to reduce the gender disparity of chefs in the restaurant industry.

Instead, they increased animosity among their customers. Many didn’t bother reading past the first Tweet, and those that did weren’t exactly amazed by BK’s attempt at “humor”.

The result was a bad look for the brand that made them look tone-deaf at best and misogynist at worst.

What we can learn:

This one’s easy: If you’re going to make a joke, make sure it’s funny. If it’s not, at least make sure you’re not punching down. Make fun of your own brand or a company with more clout. Don’t go after women on women’s day.

5. The Dove Double-Take

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Dove meant to highlight diversity with their ad. The concept was simple: Women of different ethnicities used Dove body wash and then removed their shirt. Under each shirt was another shirt, and a woman of a different ethnicity.

The problem? The last transition showed a black woman using Dove, then taking off her brown shirt to reveal a white woman. The implication that by getting “clean” black had turned to white did not sit well with audiences.

What we can learn:

Good intentions don’t always lead to good results. While the black actress in the ad defended the spot, and it’s clear that Dove wasn’t trying to imply that white = clean, the context of the ad made that interpretation entirely possible.

Better to get real-world feedback and find out it’s back to the drawboard than have to spend weeks apologizing for unintended racism.

6. The Bing Brand Debacle

Microsoft’s service has the second-highest market share in search engines. But don’t get too excited — in practice, Bing nabs 3% while Google gets 92.5%.

The numbers make it abundantly clear why Bing wanted to reinvent itself and make a move on Google.

The 2010 plan, however, was flawed from the start — for some reason, Microsoft decided the best approach was to try and make Bing into a verb, like Google.

But here’s the thing: No one is going to say “Just Bing that”, “or I just Bing’d that.” First, it’s already been done by Google, and second, saying Bing out loud just sounds ridiculous. Not surprisingly, the campaign went nowhere.

What we can learn:

If someone advises you to simply copy what another brand is doing, get a second opinion. While many brands have similar marketing strategies, advertising doppelgangers rarely work out well.

7. The Huggies Hard Sell

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Dads are dumb, right? That’s the idea behind a 2012 Huggies commercial, which saw fathers tasked with taking care of the children and even — gasp! — changing their diapers, all without their wives around.

Not surprisingly, the ad went over like a lead balloon. Single parents and same-sex couples both expressed their frustrations, and dads in general felt like it missed the mark.

For most of these men, parenting was an equal-opportunity job, not something they only did when they had no choice.

What we can learn:

Lighthearted commercials are a great way to connect with customers if they avoid stereotypes.

Huggies could have just as easily gone with messaging that showed babies of all shapes and sizes creating large amounts of — waste, shall we say — for their parents to clean up, and how Huggies outperformed the competition.

8. The EA Criminal Catastrophe

Back in 2009, Electronic Arts was getting set to release its Godfather II video game. To help promote the game, they shipped advance copies to media outlets. Nothing strange about that, right?

Sure, except for the fact that EA included an actual set of brass knuckles with every advance copy. Not only is this a terrible idea from a marketing standpoint, it’s also illegal in many states.

The company quickly realized its error and asked for the knuckles back — while the misstep did generate some buzz, the game still ended up as a commercial failure.

What we can learn:

Unexpected marketing tactics can be a great way to capture customer attention, but you’ve got to think them through. If at any point anyone suggests something that might be illegal or even resides in a legal gray area, take a pass.

9. The Kenneth Cole Cairo Clash

Clothing brand Kenneth Cole made the very odd marketing choice to connect political unrest in Cairo with the launch of their new spring collection. Needless to say, it did not go well.

In 2011, the brand Tweeted that millions were in uproar in Cairo, then suggested that the reason was because the brand launched its new spring collection.

Not only does the Tweet make zero sense, but it’s also wildly insensitive considering that more than 800 people were killed during the protests.

What we can learn:

Ads that are timely can have a massive impact — consider the “You can still dunk in the dark ad” run by Oreo when the power went out at Super Bowl XLVII. The difference? The Super Bowl is a sporting event. The Cairo protests were a civil uprising.

10. The Heineken Beer Breakdown

Light beer has gained popularity as counting carbs has become more common. Beer brand Heineken wanted to capitalize on the moment with a simple slogan: “Sometimes Lighter is Better.”

At first glance there’s nothing really wrong here. It’s not a great tagline, but it’s not bad either. The problem? It could be taken as, well, a little bit racist.

Heineklen could have avoided any problems if they’d thought it through, but instead made a commercial where a light beer slides down a bar, passing the hands of dark-skinned patrons before ending up with a white woman.

Tweets from Chance the Rapper called attention to the blunder and Heineken was forced to apologize.

What we can learn:

First, it’s worth investing in a diverse marketing team — you never know what you might miss. Second, don’t rush it. Set marketing ideas aside for a few days or a week and come back with fresh eyes. Better to catch a mistake than have to pull an entire ad campaign.

11. The Audi Audacity

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Audi has earned a solid name for itself in Germany and the U.S. Its efforts to sell used cars in China, however, quickly went off the rails.

The ad took place at a wedding, with the mother of the groom examining the bride like she was a used car — aggressively inspecting each aspect of the woman’s appearance before deciding she’s good enough.

Audi’s tagline, “an important decision must be made carefully” drew parallels between cars and women — parallels that made women seem like property that must be inspected prior to purchase. Not a great look.

What we can learn:

It’s not always easy to tell what’s funny and what isn’t. When in doubt, however, there’s a simple solution: Ask the group you’re targeting. Bring them in, let them see your ad, and ask what they think. If they like it, great. If not, change course.

Learn From These Marketing Failures

Bad ad advice is out there, and chances are you’ve heard all of it at least once.

In some cases, however, bad advice is coming from inside the house — from unconscious bias to “funny” jokes that aren’t so funny on second or third thought, there are plenty of ways for companies to miss the mark.

Best bet? Learn from the failures above.

Opt for inclusive and caring over spiteful or sarcastic. And if something does go wrong, own it. Don’t equivocate about your intentions; instead, offer a sincere apology that recognizes what you’ve done and what you’ll do to make it right.

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