The 6 Most Baffling Marketing Disasters by Famous Companies
The line between roaring success and humiliating disaster is so, so thin in the world of advertising. These companies are trying to grab attention without grabbing the wrong kind of attention, and trying to jump on societal trends without accidentally, say, referencing the 9/11 attacks in a beverage ad.
It's even harder than it sounds, and as we've covered before (and before before), when it goes wrong, it can be amazing to behold.
The World's Largest Popsicle (Predictably) Melts
In 2005, Snapple decided to expand its product line to include ice pops -- because when developing a whole new product line is a matter of freezing your existing product and jamming a stick in it, why not? Then, in a true masterstroke of marketing prowess, they thought up a grandiose way to introduce their new frozen treat to the world: crush the Guinness Record for the World's Largest Popsicle by erecting a gigantic, 17.5-ton ice pop in the middle of New York City! On the first day of summer, on a sunny day, surrounded by miles of hot asphalt!
Surely there were no kinks in Snapple's well-laid plan, right?
Displaying a truly profound misunderstanding of the physics associated with frozen summer treats, Snapple loaded their monstercicle into a freezer trailer and trucked it from Edison, New Jersey, to Manhattan, where a giant crane waited to majestically erect the multi-ton treat to its full upright position. And that's when things got mushy. When the truck was opened, waves upon waves of kiwi-strawberry Snapple came rushing out, covering the streets like someone had just opened that elevator from The Shining right in the middle of Union Square.
Fearing massive slushy-related traffic pileups and mobs of pedestrians juice-glued to the sidewalks, the streets were closed off and firefighters were called in to anticlimactically hose the remains of the once mighty Snapple-pop into the sewers. We're not entirely sure what Snapple had planned for the giant pop had they actually managed to raise it, since its inevitable fate was to melt in the hot sun sooner or later, unless Godzilla came along and ate the thing. Perhaps they were planning to start up a new "Straws for the Homeless" campaign?
Pepsi Tells Half of the Philippines That They've Struck It Rich, Riots Ensue
In the early '90s, Pepsi was lagging behind Coca-Cola in foreign markets. So, in an attempt to make headway in Southeast Asia, Pepsi's Filipino executives put their heads together and came up with an ingenious marketing plan: give away millions of pesos. Their brainchild was dubbed "Number Fever," and Filipinos were encouraged to contract the disease by purchasing shit-tons of Pepsi in hopes of finding a bottle cap with the winning three-digit code. One lucky winner would receive 1 million pesos (about $40,000 U.S.), with countless others winning second prizes, such as free drinks. Certainly it's not the sort of thing that could spark widespread rioting.
And in fact, the campaign was an instant smash: Pepsi's sales shot up nearly 40 percent, and its executives, now drunk with that sweet, sweet marketing power, expanded the number of prizes to over 1,500 and kept the contest rolling for an extra five weeks. Filipinos drank Pepsi "with every meal and snack" and hoarded the possibly precious bottle caps. When the contest was over, it was estimated that more than half of the Philippines' population of 63 million people had participated. Number Fever was an enormous success, and all that was left was for Pepsi to announce the winner.
So how could such a successful marketing campaign backfire, you ask? Well, certain numbers were not to be selected as the winner; specifically, the number 349, seeing as how it happened to be printed on 800,000 bottle caps. But the consulting firm hired to draw the winning number apparently didn't get the memo, and when their computer chose the winning number, it selected ... wait for it ... 349. Unsurprisingly, Pepsi executives quickly went from "wet dreams about next year's bonus check" to "bathing in a tub full of whiskey with a hair dryer nearby" when thousands upon thousands of elated Filipinos came forward to claim their million pesos.
Knowing they had made a huge mistake and for some reason unwilling to pay out the billions of dollars in prize money they technically owed, Pepsi covered its ass by telling the winners that the caps didn't contain the correct security code. Then, amazingly, hordes of almost millionaires politely responded "Oh, that's OK, we understand!" and contentedly went on with their lives. Just kidding -- the Philippines went absolutely apeshit.
Rioters threw bombs and Molotov cocktails at Pepsi bottling plants (while drinking Coke), overturned and set fire to Pepsi delivery trucks (while drinking 7UP), and sent troves of Pepsi executives hightailing it out of the country. Pepsi was slapped with thousands of lawsuits. Amid the chaos, the best solution Pepsi could come up with was to toss a cushy 20 bucks at those with winning caps. That's a good way to calm down a riot, right?
In the end, Pepsi's budgeted $2 million in prize payouts quickly sprouted into over $10 million in restitution and legal fees -- an expensive lesson that Pepsi wouldn't have had to learn if only they'd learned it the first time, when an earlier Number Fever promotion in Chile ended in a similar public outcry after a shitty fax resulted in the wrong winning number being released to the public.
Italian Car Maker's Gimmick Scares Spanish Women Shitless
In 1992, Italian car company Fiat tried to put a creative new spin on direct-mail advertising -- otherwise known as the junk mail that most people toss directly into the trash. To market their new Cinquecento hatchbacks, Fiat decided to mail out some love letters. So they typed up a few of them (50,000, to be exact) on pink paper and sent them out to "independent, modern working women" in Spain.
Now, you may be thinking that these "love letters" contained cute anecdotes about similar women "falling in love" with their Fiat hatchbacks because they easily accommodated gaggles of kids for family soccer games and other stereotypical womanly ad copy. But no, Fiat took a different route: These love letters contained realistic romantic musings from an anonymous author admiring the recipient from afar. And when we say "romantic musings," we mean "borderline stalker speak."
The letters used phrases like "We met again on the street yesterday and I noticed how you glanced interestedly in my direction," and asked the befuddled reader to join the author for "a little adventure." You know, because nothing says "buy our cars" like some good ol' creeping.
To make matters worse, each letter was personally addressed, was completely anonymous, and contained no indication whatsoever that it was all just a promotional stunt from Fiat. Unsurprisingly, women freaked out. Spanish newspapers reported instances of women being unwilling to leave their homes alone or cowering behind their locked doors in fear of being attacked by a stalker. In some cases, the love letters even sparked bouts of jealous fighting between couples.
Social advocates and consumer protection groups condemned Fiat's scheme, and the campaign was hastily cut short. Fiat defended themselves, explaining that the love letters were the first installment of a series in which the second would reveal that it was all just a gimmick -- presumably via a postcard reading "JK, no rapes. Buy our cars, K? XOXO, Fiat."
Starbucks Accidentally Creates a Tragic Drink Ad
This is every advertiser's worst nightmare -- coming up with a campaign after a tragedy that either A) inadvertently reminds everyone of the tragedy or, even worse, B) looks like you're making fun of the tragedy. Now, it's one thing if you can look at the ad and see where people are being too sensitive ("How dare you run this ad for pecan sandies so soon after Hurricane Sandy?!?!" ), but it's another when you look at the ad and say, "OK, this is bad ..."
For instance, in the summer of 2002 (less than a year after 9/11), Starbucks released their new ad campaign, which centered on this doozy of a poster:
This seemingly innocuous image soon garnered the attention of customers who thought that something just wasn't quite right about it. And the more they studied the image, the more wrong it seemed -- the two drinks standing side by side (just like the former World Trade Center towers had), towering over the oddly square, building-like blades of grass, the cute little dragonfly angling for a direct collision course with one of the drinks ...
All of that could have been ignored (but seriously, why the firefly?). The real kicker was the tagline: "Collapse into Cool." When the fuck has that phrase ever been uttered by anyone? The whole thing is just so ... weird.
After complaints came in, Starbucks kicked into full-on backpedal mode, aborting the release of any more of the posters and instructing the 3,000 stores where the posters had already been displayed to "rip that shit down forthwith" (official wording from the internal Starbucks memo). The fiasco taught Starbucks an invaluable lesson about steering well clear of anything that could be even remotely reminiscent of the attacks, and they never again had another 9/11-related controversy. And by "never again," we mean "until about nine years later," when they decided to declare September 11, 2011 Free Coffee Day.
Weight Watchers Has Gravely Bad Timing
Through a combination of B-list celebrity spokespeople and a points system so ridiculously complicated that it works by causing you to just give up on eating altogether, Weight Watchers has succeeded in becoming nearly synonymous with weight loss. But that's not to say they haven't made some marketing blunders along the way -- perhaps the most notable of which being a gruesome coincidence in 1997 that had to make them feel like they'd been cursed by a vengeful god.
That's the year Weight Watchers kicked off a brand new ad campaign featuring the then Princess of the United Kingdom, Sarah, Duchess of York (popularly known as "the Fergie who's not a Black Eyed Pea"). The ad featured a beaming Fergie touting the benefits of Weight Watchers -- namely, its ability to help you watch your weight -- under the bold declaration that losing weight was "harder than outrunning the paparazzi."
Uh-oh. You see where this is headed now, right? If you think back to the top news stories of 1997, you'll remember that cloned sheep and Mars robots and crazy comet cults all played second fiddle to the story of Princess Diana's death in a tragic car crash ... which resulted from being chased through the streets of Paris by paparazzi. And here we had people getting this ad in the mail the next day after the accident. What the hell was Weight Watchers thinking?
What they were thinking is that they weren't time-traveling wizards with the ability to foresee the future -- they had the campaign in the works long before, and had just mailed out the fliers bearing the slogan when Di was killed. They were scheduled to do tons of TV and other media the following week, which absolutely would have looked like they were riffing on the princess's gruesome crash.
This of course sent Weight Watchers scrambling to cancel the campaign, but unfortunately thousands of direct mail brochures had already been sent out, and print ads had already gone to press in magazines such as Glamour and Self, creating an immensely embarrassing situation for both the company and their new spokesperson, and confusion for all of the people who presumably thought the news of Diana's death itself was part of some kind of viral marketing stunt.
Panasonic Blows Every Attempt at Naming a PC
Oh boy. Oh boy oh boy oh boy.
Sorry, we got a little excited there. Because, you see, it's not every day that fate steps in and writes the dick joke for us.
In the mid-1990s, well before the YouTube comments section came along to wreck their faith in humanity, people everywhere were still discovering the joy of home computers. Japanese engineers at Panasonic were way ahead of the curve, and in 1996 -- when many people were still adapting to the concept of this "mouse" thingamajig -- they developed a touch screen PC for the home market.
Panasonic needed a way to brand their touchy-feely new PC that would appeal to your average, not-tech-savvy consumer. They wanted to tout their PC's accessibility and ease of use, and they needed a mascot to demonstrate that computers were not arcane devices used only by NASA scientists and the socially awkward. This made their choice of mascot a total no brai- wait, Woody Woodpecker?!
Yep, Woody Woodpecker might seem like a relic from the heyday of American cartoons to you, but he was apparently huge in '90s Japan. So after securing the rights to use Mr. Woodpecker and conducting an amount of research so infinitesimal that scientists are still studying it today, Panasonic proudly dubbed their new computer "The Woody." But wait, it gets better -- to truly set their touch screen capability apart from the competition, Panasonic named the feature "Touch Woody." But wait again, it gets even better -- Panasonic was all geared up to launch the PC with an ad campaign featuring the catchy slogan "Touch Woody -- the Internet Pecker."
Panasonic had no clue that anything was wrong with the slogan until the day before the ads were set to launch, when an American staff member informed them of the sexual slang connotations, presumably while spraying them with soda out of his nose.
"Stunned and embarrassed," Japanese Panasonic executives immediately postponed the product launch in order to retool their marketing efforts, and after careful consideration (which we have to assume involved suggestions for alternate slogans such as "Rub Harry, the Internet Ballsack" and "Grope Booby, the Internet Titty"), they decided it was too late to rename the system and instead simply adjusted the name of the touch screen feature from "Touch Woody" to the much more respectable "Woody Touch Screen" ... which still touted an "Internet Pecker" online support function (which we believe was later renamed "Chatroulette").
And that, dear Cracked readers, is how years of research and technological innovation can be completely negated by the power of one accidental boner reference.
Evan V. Symon is a moderator in the Cracked Workshop. He can be found on Facebook, or you can vote for his new book, The End of the Line.
For more baffling corporate decisions, check out The 7 Most Idiotic Corporate Temper Tantrums. Or learn about Dickonomics: How 5 Everyday Businesses Trick You.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 6 Reasons Not to Freak Out About the 3D Printer Gun.
And stop by LinkSTORM to see why Walt Disney's rampant porn addiction almost ruined him.
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