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Times Companies Royally Screwed Themselves With Marketing Promotions

Updated September 16, 2020 • 4:35pm PDT 13.1k votes 3.0k voters 213.6k views15 items

List RulesVote up the most disastrous marketing promotions.

A global marketing campaign can make or break a company. Consumers recognize Nike by their innovative "Just Do It" commercials. When people think Budweiser, they're immediately drawn to majestic Clydesdale horses. A good ad campaign will make us laugh, cry, and see things from a new perspective. Promotions that backfired are on the other end of the spectrum, and they tend to elicit a sense of utter dread and bewilderment.

Several of the worst marketing promotions didn't start from a bad place, but they led to public outrage and millions of lost dollars all the same; retailers like Starbucks and the World Wildlife Fund genuinely wanted to enact social change and help others. Other times, marketing teams simply lacked common sense.

Large-scale marketing snafus are a wild ride, filled with tone-deaf ads and money-sucking promotions. When there's so much red tape, executives find themselves against a wall, questioning who on their team actually approved such a monstrosity. At best, companies escaped with minor embarrassment. At worst, they faced bankruptcy.

  • Photo: Hoover

    Hoover cooked up a free-flight offer to get rid of a surplus of vacuum cleaners in the '90s. The promotion was rather simple: British-based customers had to buy a £100 vacuum cleaner to get two free flights around Europe or to the US. The company must have forgotten that transatlantic flights cost well over £100. As a result of this oversight, more than 200,000 people bought the cheapest vacuum cleaner necessary to qualify for the promotion.

    Consumers ended up spending around £30 million on vacuums they didn't want, but the flights cost the company over £50 million (plus legal costs spurred by related lawsuits). In addition, Hoover launched into seven-day work weeks to satisfy the demand for their cheapest, most unremarkable vacuum. The disaster cost the company so much money they fired the heads of their British-based marketing operations, and Italian manufacturer Candy bought the branch. 

    Was this a marketing blunder?
  • 2

    Sunny Co Clothing's 'Pamela' Bathing Suit Instagram Giveaway


    Sunny Co Clothing had no idea what response they'd get when they posted an Instagram giveaway involving a red, Baywatch-inspired bathing suit that retailed for around $65. The California-based company offered a free "Pamela" swimsuit to anyone in the US who reposted the image and tagged the company. The customer was only responsible for shipping costs. Unfortunately for Sunny Co, the promotion worked a little too well.

    Sunny Co's swimsuit campaign went viral within 24 hours. The post gained over 338,000 likes, and thousands of people reposted the image hoping to snag a free suit. The company frantically changed the rules of the giveaway, trying to cap the number of participants. The internet was furious. On top of that, the company was so inundated with giveaway orders, it was impossible for them to ship anything in a timely manner.

    Angry customers flooded Facebook stating the campaign was a scam since they were charged the full $65, rather than just the $12.98 for shipping. Eventually, the company refunded the customers and sent out thousands of free swimsuits (which was a massive financial hit). This bottomless giveaway was probably more trouble than it was worth.

    Was this a marketing blunder?
  • Photo: AdAge / Fair Use

    In 1999, Just For Feet was an unknown brand looking to take its business to the next level. A groundbreaking Super Bowl commercial became the perfect pick-me-up. Unfortunately, it broke the wrong kind of ground.

    The controversial commercial featured a barefoot Kenyan runner fleeing for his life from white paramilitary troops who drug him and forced him into a pair of Just For Feet shoes. The backlash was so bad that Just For Feet sued its creative agency, Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications, for advertising malpractice and demanded over $10 million dollars in damages. They claimed to have had reservations about the ad, but the Super Bowl was too close to create a new one. They were already out $900,000 in production costs and $2 million for the time slot, so they felt forced to roll with it.

    On top of this, the "Just For Feet's Third Quarter Super Bowl Win a Hummer Contest" didn't go as planned. The company spent around $800,000 in teasers during the NFL championships. The contest required entrants to determine the number of 'Just For Feet' mentions in the third quarter. Users would then input this number on Just For Feet's website or simply phone it in to enter the sweepstakes. The only issue was that the ad ran in the fourth quarter, so the contest's answer was zero. The website didn't accept zero as an answer, so thousands claimed the contest was a scam.

    Shortly after filing the lawsuit, Just For Feet filed for bankruptcy.

    Was this a marketing blunder?
  • Coca-Cola truly put their money where their mouth was when they launched the overambitious, ill-fated MagiCans campaign in 1990. It turns out people don't really like bacteria-laden cash in their soft drinks.

    The idea behind MagiCans seemed simple: random amounts of cash, from $1 to $500, were hidden in Coke cans. The cash would pop up when you snap open your drink. It's the technology that failed the soda giants, not so much the inherent idea.

    In order to make the cans that contained money weigh the same as regular cans, they used water to offset the difference. In about 1% of the cans, the compartments containing the water, mixed with chlorine and smelly ammonium sulfate to discourage drinking, leaked into the soda.

    State health authorities took action after an 11-year-old boy drank the foul-tasting liquid from one of the prize-winning Coke cans. It was a lawsuit waiting to happen, and the soda company issued additional advertisements telling people not to drink the water in the cans (not what you'd expect to hear after purchasing a drink). Overall, customers weren't pleased with receiving soggy, weird-smelling cash in a drinkable product.

    Panned by the press, the company stopped the $4 million promotion early, but maintained they received less than 25 actual consumer complaints. Only about 120,000 of the 750,000 cans were ever distributed.

    Was this a marketing blunder?