12 Most Controversial Ads and What We Can Learn From Them (2023)

Ads have been essential tools for many businesses worldwide for as long as we can remember. They have a multitude of purposes — promoting services or products, raising brand awareness, building brand loyalty, and much more. Essentially, ads are supposed to put your brand in the spotlight. But what happens if they do that in all the wrong ways? What happens if your business puts out a controversial ad?

Let’s clear one thing up first — controversy is not always bad; however, it is a slippery slope! As a rule of thumb, you should avoid it like the plague. But if it does happen, you should try to make the best of it. And by that, we mean try to save face.

“Bad press is better than no press.”

P. T. Barnum

If this quote just crossed your mind, tread carefully. Barnum’s point of view might apply for small businesses without much to lose, but if you’re a famous brand with a broad existing audience, controversy and bad press can be detrimental to your growth and sales.

OK, but how can you protect yourself from potential controversy? By learning from others’ mistakes, of course! Also, a bit of market and audience research helps as well! So don’t forget to dedicate your time to that before launching your ad campaign.

But now, let’s take a look at some of the most infamous and controversial ads of the past years! In the end, we’ll also provide you with an overview of what to avoid in your video content marketing campaigns to safeguard yourself from controversy adequately. So lean back, put your learning hat on, and enjoy!

12 Most Controversial Ads of Recent Years

Here are some of the most controversial ads to date:

Let’s jump right into it!

Pepsi — Tone Deaf to the Core

This advertising fail was so huge that Pepsi removed the ad within 24 hours of its launch. The ad was simple in premise — it showed some sort of protest composed of a widely mixed crowd, after which Kendall Jenner, who’s been doing a photoshoot nearby, stops, joins the protesters, and hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer to… save the day?

Sounds pretty dull, doesn’t it? Not quite like controversial material? Wrong.

This ad was abysmally bad because, at that time, there were Black Lives Matter protests happening in America. The ad tried to reference those events, even going so far as to trying to identify Jenner with a protester Lesha Evans who got arrested during the BLM protests.

Pepsi received immediate backlash and condemnation due to their insensitive handling of the topic at hand. Overall, the brand’s most significant issue was that its message was incredibly tone-deaf and unfitting to their product.

NIVEA — White Is Purity?

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Oh, boy… Where do we even begin? This controversial ad is a perfect example of what to avoid. Regardless of what kind of message the brand wanted to get across, the reality is that the creators of this didn’t think it through. Not only did NIVEA receive massive backlash and criticism for white supremacy and blatant racism, but they quickly had to switch gear to damage control.

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Following the debacle of this horrendous ad, NIVEA had to issue a formal apology, and it even added a section on diversity and inclusivity as one of the company’s core values in their bio.

Bristol Dry Gin — Lootin’ Shootin’ Controversy

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Here’s a pretty recent gem! In the wake of current Black Lives Matter protests, riots, and looting sprees across America, Bristol Dry Gin decided to put this piece out there.

How do you think the ad performed? That’s right — horrendously.

The ad was so insensitive about a severe problem plaguing the U.S. that it was highly inappropriate. The backlash that followed this ad led to many distributors dropping Bristol Dry Gin from their stores. Eventually, the company issued a formal apology, though the damage had already been done.

McDonald’s — Dead Father Scandal

This McDonald’s ad left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths after it had aired in Britain. Why? Because the ad toyed with child bereavement to sell burgers. Essentially, the ad revolved around a grim scenario where a child was asking his mother about his late father, culminating at McDonald’s, where it promotes their latest Filet-O-Fish. Even though the ad was merely aiming to target the consumers’ emotions and not cause controversy, it did so in a highly insensitive way that brought forth a lot of criticism. The public was quick to lash out at the fast-food brand on social media, soon after which the brand pulled the ad.

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Dove — Body Wash… Your Skin Color?

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Here we have another advertising controversy based on skin color. In this Dove’s commercial for one of their body wash products, an African American woman removing her top suddenly changes into a white woman. Whoever designed this ad must have had a long conversation with their boss after this ad aired…

Not only did Dove get accused of “whitewashing,” but they also sparked a huge outrage on social media. The brand’s apology did little to curb the backlash, with many users deciding to boycott it. Even a hashtag #DoneWithDove managed to remain trending for weeks after the incident.

Gillette — We Believe… Men Are Toxic

Ah, yes. The ad that could have been good had it been done right… Although, we could say that for all of these ads, couldn’t we? The premise of this Gillette ad was to raise awareness of the inappropriate behavior of some men, popularly labeled toxic masculinity but ended up sending the wrong message.

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Although the ad’s goal was to give Gillette’s two cents on the Me Too movement, both men and women criticized the ad. It is not only full of degrading generalizations, but it was also condemned for emasculating men. This controversial ad screamed bully, sexual predator, toxic, and much more.

The overwhelmingly negative feedback became even worse once people found out that Gillette was removing dislikes from their commercial on YouTube. The company has since replied, stating that they didn’t intend to cause controversy for controversy’s sake. However, this ad still left a bitter taste in many of their customers’ mouths.

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Burger King — The Worst Misplaced “Joke” EVER…

One has to wonder by now if there’s a connection between fast-food restaurants and controversies (spoiler alert — we have one more coming a bit later!)… This time, the culprit is the now infamous Burger King. The fast-food giant made headlines after posting a controversial “joke” tweet on International Women’s Day 2021.

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That’s right… Somebody in Burger King’s marketing department thought this stunt was a good idea… Oh, the poor soul…

Although it’s clear that the tweet was a joke from the rest of BK’s Twitter thread, few people even bothered to read through it.

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Despite the fact that Burger King made this tweet to announce their culinary scholarship program for their female employees, the method they used was nearly unanimously deemed unacceptable.

The backlash was swift and brutal, as thousands of users flooded the thread calling them out for misogyny and insensitivity. At first, the company doubled down on its initial tweet, but they eventually apologized and deleted the entire thread.

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Considering how much traction this scandal got, Burger King will need a lot of investment and customer goodwill to recover from this PR nightmare. Makes you wonder if it was worth it, doesn’t it?

Nike — Colin Kaepernick 2018 Campaign

The reason this particular ad rose to the status of infamy wasn’t like any of the ones we’ve covered so far. This Nike ad featured an ex-NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the American national anthem just two years prior. The reason behind Kaepernick’s protest was injustice in America.

Although Kaepernick disclosed his reasons behind his protest, he faced some serious backlash over it as many people deemed his act as anti-patriotic. The public hasn’t forgotten the ex-quarterback’s silent rebellion, so when he appeared in Nike’s ad, the masses went wild.

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Kaepernick’s role in the ad was that of motivating young athletes afraid of pursuing their dreams. Although the ad’s content was extremely positive, many people didn’t like Nike’s choice of spokesperson. However, despite a lot of negative press, there were also a lot of people who applauded Nike’s decision to support Kaepernick, and overall, despite the outrage, Nike’s sales went up!

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Signal — Controversial Ads… For Whom?

One of the most recent controversies in the online advertising world regards the decentralized messaging app Signal. The company recently decided to launch an advertising campaign on Instagram that resulted in their ad account’s termination by Facebook.

But what did Signal do to warrant such a punishment? Well, they decided to take a jab at Facebook and how they use their users’ personal information in their ad! Here are a few examples of their Instagram ads that got rejected.

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Signal argues they did nothing wrong since their ads only use the user information Facebook collects daily, but the jury is still out on this case. The internet is predominantly on Signal’s side, but considering that Facebook has a strong case that these ads could be harmful to their business, it’s unlikely Signal will get unbanned.

Losing the opportunity to advertise on platforms with such a massive reach like Facebook and Instagram can prove incredibly damaging for any business. That is particularly true if you’re targeting these platforms’ audiences like Signal. Although this controversial banning brought Signal plenty of free PR, the question that remains is — was it worth it?

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Microsoft — 2020 Satanic Panic?

Oh boy, here’s another recent outrage, this time over Microsoft’s ad for mixed reality. This one was quite easy to miss as it escalated extremely quickly, and the tech giant pulled the plug even faster!

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Namely, Microsoft recently created an ad for mixed reality featuring a controversial artist, Marina Abramović. Similar to the case of Colin Kaepernick and Nike, the ad’s contents weren’t problematic, but the person featured. However, in the case of Microsoft’s ad, the backlash was much more devastating. The original YouTube video where the ad first aired had received over 24,000 thousand downvotes before Microsoft finally removed it.

The ad received such massive backlash due to the nature of Abramović’s art, which was identified with spiritualism, ritualistic satanism, and performances that are deemed borderline barbaric. While there are people who consider her contribution to the artistic world invaluable, the public begged to disagree.

PETA — Save the “Whales”

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This ad is the perfect example of how not to market yourself. Likely the worst part about this ad is that it was intentionally made offensive. Most people are left wondering what was going through the heads of marketers at PETA when they came up with this shameful ad, but we guess we’ll never know.

We are safe to assume this ad campaign didn’t go too well.

Carl’s Junior — The All Natural Boo…rger?

Carl’s Junior 2015 Super Bowl commercial was, although controversial, a massive success! But how did this fast-food company manage that? It’s pretty simple — sex sells!

This ad was purposefully so over the top that everyone loved it! Except for the critics, of course. Namely, the brand made a commercial that showed some skin, was brimming with sexyness, and made a ton of profit. The fact that the commercial had earned 2.5 billion media impressions even before its debut at the Super Bowl should be evidence enough just how successful it was.

“If people don’t complain, I go to the head of marketing and say, ’What’s wrong with our ads?’”

Andrew Puzder, Carl’s Jr. CEO

As you can see from the quote above, this brand readily accepts controversy in their marketing campaigns; however, unlike most of our entries on our list, they utilize a different approach. Instead of using something offensive, unappealing or intolerable, they use a foolproof method of “Be sexy, not mean.”

What Can Brands Learn From These Examples?

Let’s do a quick rundown of the primary takes from these controversial ads.

  • Avoid dealing with sensitive topics in your ads (race, gender, stereotypes, tragedy).
  • Don’t feature controversial people in your commercials.
  • Don’t be inappropriate.
  • Avoid marginalizing or offending anyone.
  • If you do any of the above, be prepared!
  • If everything goes awry, apologize!

In the end, everyone makes mistakes, and that’s normal. But if you ask us, it’s better to learn from others’ mistakes than your own! So take these accounts of controversial ads and make the best of them. Good luck, and be careful when making your next advertising campaign.

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(Video) The Most Controversial Advertising Campaigns

12 Most Controversial Ads and What We Can Learn From Them (19)

FAQs

What are the most controversial ads? ›

The 5 Most Controversial Marketing Campaigns of the Decade
  1. Always #LikeAGirl – 2015. 70million views on YouTube. ...
  2. Gillette #TheBestMenCanBe – 2019. 4 million views on YouTube (via Guardian News) ...
  3. Elvie – Leaks Happen 2022. 3 million views on TikTok. ...
  4. Weetabix Beanz on Bix – 2021. 3k retweets on Twitter. ...
  5. KFC FCK – 2018.
23 Jun 2022

Which ads are called as controversial ads? ›

What Is Controversial Advertising? Controversial advertising doesn't aim to polarize an audience. It's an attention-grabbing technique for stating an opinion, and brands use it to spark productive conversations about certain moral values.

Are Controversial ads good? ›

Controversial ads can be a brilliant way to attract attention to your brand. However, it's still a risk, especially if your company is very small or otherwise still finding its footing. Risks can help your brand turn heads, but you should always make sure they're calculated ones.

Which ads are poor in taste? ›

Sexual Appeals The advertising appeals that have received the most criticism for being in poor taste are those using sexual appeals and/or nudity.
...
Advertising as Offensive or in Bad Taste
  • Truth. ...
  • Substantiation. ...
  • Comparisons. ...
  • Bait advertising. ...
  • Guarantees and warranties. ...
  • Price claims. ...
  • Testimonials. ...
  • Taste and decency.
11 May 2022

What are NSFW ads? ›

NSFW is an internet acronym that means "not safe for work." NSFW often serves as a content warning, urging the viewer to use discretion or avoid the post or image when they are in a professional or public setting.

What are bad ads? ›

Negative advertising is a type of advertising that focuses on competitors' weaknesses and is presented in the form of speeches, commercials, interviews, articles, etc. It involves spreading negative facts about someone, deteriorating their reputation, and disqualifying them in the eyes of buyers.

What are some of the key factors that make advertising controversial? ›

Sexist Image, Stereotyping of People and Subject Too Personal.

Which type of advertising is usually argumentative and controversial in nature? ›

Advocacy advertising is a form of marketing used primarily by nonprofit organizations and private groups with the goal of swaying public opinion to support a particular cause or message. It differs from commercial advertising because it does not promote a product or service.

What makes an ad unethical? ›

Unethical advertising is the misrepresentation of a product/service in some way or the use of subliminal messaging to fit a hidden agenda. This form of advertising uses deceptive ways to manipulate or convince the consumer to buy the product or service.

Does controversy sell? ›

Controversy sells newspapers, books, and movies. You can also use controversy to sell your product, service or yourself. Notice how they often do it in the movie business. The entertainment industry has lots of vivid controversy lessons for marketers.

Why is Digital marketing controversial? ›

Digital advertising is controversial due to issues like transparency and branding. Learn more about the problems digital advertising faces. Digital advertising is controversial. From consumers distrusting advertisers to advertisements appearing next to controversial content, digital advertising has had some hiccups.

Why was the John Lewis ad pulled? ›

“This advert has been withdrawn because the Financial Conduct Authority considers the content to be potentially misleading and could cause customers to be confused about John Lewis's new home contents insurance offering. This was absolutely never our intention.

What is the message of the ad Acora? ›

The text of the Acora ad is saying that they can outsource some tasks that you don't want to do for you.

What should you not do in advertising? ›

Dumb Advertising Moves to Avoid
  • Borrowed interest. Avoid trying to associate yourself with things that have no relevance to what you do. ...
  • Event sales. Refrain from jumping on this bandwagon. ...
  • Ego trips. Don't put yourself in the advertising. ...
  • Different media, different ads. ...
  • Advertise everywhere. ...
  • Overdoing the ads.

Why do advertisements fail? ›

Too much product knowledge often leads them to talk about features that prospective customers don't really care about, or answer questions no one is asking. UNSUBSTANTIATED CLAIMS. Advertisers often claim to have what the customer wants, such as “highest quality at the lowest price,” but fail to offer any evidence.

What is an example of negative campaigning? ›

1964: The Daisy ad used by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 United States presidential election. 1968: The "Convention Ad" run by Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.

What companies are bad at marketing? ›

Updated:
  • 38 Failed Startups with Bad Marketing Efforts.
  • 1) Call9.
  • 2) Fab.
  • 3) Laurel & Wolf.
  • 4) Lumos.
  • 5) Munchery.
  • 6) MySpace.
  • 7) Quibi.

What is a negative appeal in advertising? ›

Negative appeals describe losses and unintended consequences of certain attitudes and behaviours by creating discomfort.

Is creating controversy a marketing strategy? ›

Controversial marketing is one of the most cost-effective marketing strategies because one courageous campaign can also generate high levels of awareness and drive conversions — especially if your topic or content breaks through the white noise of the internet and goes viral.

Why is it unethical for a company to allow its ads to run on a controversial website? ›

The company should carry out its activities without the harming of any public unit. Therefore, it is unethical for companies to adopt such measures because the advertisements opted by the companies question the ethicality depicted by them.

How do you create a controversy? ›

The first one is rational; people debate the “controversy” based on really obvious opinions.
...
So in order to create controversy in the right way, here are three suggestions:
  1. Take a top-down approach. ...
  2. Take the sensible approach. ...
  3. Repair relationships with those who are offended.
26 Jun 2017

Which advertising is aggressive in nature? ›

Advocacy advertising is aggressive in nature.

What are the 5 principles of advertising? ›

The five principles of great advertising can therefore be summarized as:
  • Establish relevance to target audience.
  • Exhibit uniqueness from competition.
  • Prove credibility through product characteristic or use.
  • Add to consumer knowledge.
  • Execute through relevant touchpoints.
19 Aug 2009

Why are advertisements criticized? ›

Main criticisms against advertising are: (1) increased price of the product, (2) multiplication of needs, (3) deceptive, (4) it leads to monopoly, (5) harmful for the society, (6) wastage of precious national resources!

Why is false advertising morally wrong? ›

Effect. Advertising that promotes a service or product in a deceptive manner is unethical because it doesn't provide consumers with all the information they need to make a good decision. Consequently, consumers might waste money on products or services they neither need nor want.

What is puffery advertising? ›

In today's world, puffery is a statement that uses exaggeration and/or hyperbole to promote a product or service. Puffery is all around you whether you know it or not. A few common examples of puffery advertising you may have heard: World's best product. Best in the business.

Is emotional advertising unethical? ›

Emotional manipulation in advertising is unethical when, as Corby mentioned, the advertisements leave a harmful negative psychological impact on the viewer and those designing advertisements are aware of this effect.

Does controversy help or hurt a brand? ›

The results from a series of studies, involving both unknown and well-known brands, show that attitudes towards the brand decreased substantially among consumers who disagreed with a brand's stand, whereas there was no significant effect among consumers who were supportive of the brand's stand (Studies 1–4).

How controversy can lead to more sales? ›

Controversy is a seed that can quickly breed publicity in an exponential fashion. That's because as the controversial story gains popularity, more journalists and media companies seem to write about and replay the story. With social media, the story can stimulate viral marketing.

How criticism can be explained in marketing ethics? ›

Criticism of marketing focuses largely on two areas: its “excesses” and its “expertness.” “Excesses” are about purposefully shoddy and objectionable products, inadequate warranties, deceptive or objectionable advertising, misleading packaging, questionable selling practices, and emphasis on tawdry values.

What is the biggest problem in digital marketing? ›

#1 Generating Quality Leads

Perhaps one the biggest, if not the biggest, digital marketing challenges facing small businesses is finding new customers – but not just someone who might buy from you and never see them again – repeat customers – also known as quality leads. Quality leads are tough to come by.

What is controversial content? ›

By nature, controversial content encourages people to share. Controversial content stimulates interest in your company. People who read the content often want to investigate your company to learn more about it. Controversy can encourage others to think of you as a “thought leader,” raising your profile.

What are the social issues in advertising? ›

Social and Ethical Issues in Advertising
  • Moral concerns about advertising of harmful products—Tobacco, Alcohol etc.
  • Objection to over emphasis on sex—sex appeals.
  • Objection to occasion of exposure when children are present with the adults.
  • Objection to advertising strategy of excessive repetition of the Ad.

What is offensive advertising? ›

Offensive advertising is advertising which does not agree with the laws and ethics of adverting. This advertising is caused by the competition of advertising agencies over innovation, creativity, and public recognition.

What type of advertising is usually argumentative and controversial in nature? ›

It frequently focuses on economic, social, environmental, or political issues. Companies sometimes use advocacy advertising if public perception or government policies negatively impact their ability to operate their business.

What makes an ad unethical? ›

Unethical advertising is the misrepresentation of a product/service in some way or the use of subliminal messaging to fit a hidden agenda. This form of advertising uses deceptive ways to manipulate or convince the consumer to buy the product or service.

What is the most watched commercial of all time? ›

Doritos Super Bowl Spot Was the Most-Watched Ad of All Time.

Who is the woman in the public com commercial? ›

Celeste Thorson
Thorson at the red carpet event in Hollywood, California
BornJuly 23, 1984 Orange County, California, U.S.
OccupationActress, model, screenwriter, activist
Websitehttp://www.celestethorson.com

Why is commercial music so loud? ›

Most TV commercials are created to be loud simply so you can hear the advertisement and get your attention. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not regulate the volume of commercials, nor does it regulate the volume of TV programs.

What is the message of the ad Acora? ›

The text of the Acora ad is saying that they can outsource some tasks that you don't want to do for you.

When was the Mr Clean Mother's Day ad released? ›

In 2011 Mr. Clean released an ad titled “This Mother's Day, get back to the job that really matters”, and then depicts a mom teaching her young daughter how to clean.

Why do I keep getting the same as? ›

With ad targeting, you may see ads that are similar to what you've browsed previously, but not necessarily an exact match. That's because the browser or search engine you're using may share tracking information with the web or social media site you're on.

What are some of the key factors that make advertising controversial? ›

Sexist Image, Stereotyping of People and Subject Too Personal.

Which advertising is aggressive in nature? ›

Advocacy advertising is aggressive in nature.

Why are advertisements criticized? ›

Main criticisms against advertising are: (1) increased price of the product, (2) multiplication of needs, (3) deceptive, (4) it leads to monopoly, (5) harmful for the society, (6) wastage of precious national resources!

Why is false advertising morally wrong? ›

Effect. Advertising that promotes a service or product in a deceptive manner is unethical because it doesn't provide consumers with all the information they need to make a good decision. Consequently, consumers might waste money on products or services they neither need nor want.

What are examples of unethical marketing practices? ›

Here are some common unethical marketing practices to be aware of: Misleading advertising. Contacting people without their consent. Inciting controversy.

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