The 5 Most Disastrous Marketing Failures of All Time

#2. American Airlines Accidentally Lets People Fly Free Forever

Tim Boyle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1981, American Airlines decided to seduce the rich assholes of the world by giving them unlimited first-class tickets for a one-time fee (because once you have enough money to buy anything, you never have to buy anything ever again). For a cool $250,000, customers received the AAirpass, consisting of unlimited first-class tickets for the rest of their lives. For an extra $150,000, they could bring a buddy along, because what fun is laughing and pointing at those plebeians in coach if you're doing it all by your lonesome?

Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images
And the inevitable mile-high hookup is much more fun with a friend.

It sounds like a lot of money -- indeed, that's what AA marketing must have thought too. But first-class tickets aren't cheap, and if you can use as many as you want for the rest of your life, you'll quickly make your money back in tickets, and after that every ticket you get is absolutely free.

AA thought that their pass would be used by powerful companies to shuttle their top executives around; they never anticipated a bunch of run-of-the-mill wealthy people getting their hands on them and going stark-raving mad with power. Which they did. The prospect of "free flights any time, all the time, forever" was just too much for some people. One guy flew to London 16 times ... in a single month. Why not? If you don't mind the flight -- and it's first class, remember -- then it's like having a Star Trek teleporter. Decide you want to have lunch in London tomorrow, just hop on a plane and go. One guy has flown over 30 million miles on his lifetime pass -- enough to go around the globe more than a thousand times, or to fly New York to Tokyo 4,500 times.

And remember, the buddy pass meant you could always bring somebody along. One guy liked to offer his buddy ticket to complete strangers, to let them taste the good life for once. Another gave away the frequent-flyer miles he accumulated to AIDS patients so they could see their families. It was all legal -- the deal didn't specify whom they could bring. Hey, want to impress a date? How about a spontaneous trip to Paris ... every weekend. Why not? It's free. Hell, in the beginning they didn't even prohibit pass holders from selling the buddy seat. You could sell it for a few thousand bucks and pay for your hotel and meals. It's no wonder these people practically lived on planes.

Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images
Some people kept the buddy seat vacant, just to keep AA from making any money.

None of this was free to AA, of course. After years of this program, the company realized that there were individual pass holders who were getting $1 million in free flights every year. AA stopped issuing new tickets in 1994 and hired a fraud investigator to start hassling existing customers, looking for reasons to revoke their tickets. It's as if one day they woke up and realized, "Wait, this promotion we told customers was a great deal for them actually was. Put a stop to it immediately!"

#1. Just for Feet's Superbly Racist Super Bowl Ad

Kari Walker/Acadia Business

It's easy to understand how unintentionally racist ads can make it to air -- blissfully naive marketers can miss racist symbolism if they're not being vigilant. Mistakes happen. But how this next clusterfuck occurred, on the world's biggest advertising stage, has to be one of the great mysteries of modern marketing.

In the 1990s shoe superstore Just for Feet was becoming popular enough that they decided to do a promotional stunt during Super Bowl XXXIII. The $7 million promotion would involve giving away a Hummer (which these days would be a disaster all its own) and pairing the giveaway with a 30-second commercial. Viewers were told to look out for the ad during the third quarter and call in to a hotline to win the car. Pretty straightforward stuff ... until you see the ad.

The following was shown to 127 million homes. It starts with a "hunter" in the desert ...

Just For Feet
Dressed for snowboarding, for some reason.

... roaring along in a Hummer with his companions:

Just For Feet
Because nothing says "buy our shoes" like driving.

The hilarious twist is that, instead of a wild animal, the very white hunter is actually pursuing a human being. A black, Kenyan runner:

Just For Feet
No, not some famous athlete. Just a regular Kenyan, fleeing.

The hunter and his crew then knock him out like a wild animal by drugging his water, and go to work on his unconscious body.

When he wakes up from his stupor, he finds (twist!) a pair of Just for Feet shoes strapped to him. See, like a wild animal, when scientists knock them out and tag them. As he screams and stumbles off into the distance, "Just for Feet" flashes on the screen just long enough to let you know where to send all the hate mail.

The backlash was so instantaneous, it probably started before the commercial ended. Not one quark of this commercial worked. It was creepy (that's what you get for scripting humans hunting humans), racist ("haha, silly black man running without shoes like some silly black man") and even insulting toward its own product (if the world-class runner hated wearing those shoes, that means we should hate wearing them too, right?).

Oh, and remember when we said the car giveaway involved having people watch for the ad in the third quarter? It didn't run until the fourth, and neither the contest phone hotline nor website was equipped to deal with this fact. So even the people calling in to claim their racist shoe Hummer were left thinking the whole thing was a scam.

Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images
Ah, the old "call us and hate us" scam.

The whole thing was so bad that the company first sued the ad agency for $10 million, as if they had never had a chance to see the spot before it was broadcast to the entire nation, and then the company itself shut down less than a year later. But honestly, who could have known it would blow up in their face like that? Other than everyone. Absolutely everyone in the world would have known, except them.


Evan V. Symon is a Cracked Workshop Moderator and is part of the Personal Experience Team. Raoni draws his power from beer and the tears of fanboys. You may follow him on Twitter.

Related Reading: We love it when an advertising plan falls apart. Remember the time Burger King asked people to give up friendships for free burgers? Far more disastrous was the time McDonalds bet against America in the Olympics and lost millions. And then, in a terrible class all its own, is the Red Lobster snow crab special.

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