The 6 Most Unintentionally Offensive Publicity Campaigns
Creating a marketing campaign for a charity is tough, because marketing and charity are the exact opposite: Charity is about giving up money to fix real problems in the world, while marketing is more about pretending bad things exist so other people will give you money. Even so, it's pretty shocking that some of these ideas even made it past the "Hey, what if we ..." stage, let alone all the way to TV screens, bus stops, and radio stations around the world. To be clear, these were all launched for a good cause, and occasionally resulted in some pretty great things -- like schools for Africa and money for victims of terrorist attacks -- we just can't help but think there was a better way to do it than ...
UNICEF Raising Money for African Schools (With Blackface)
In 2007, UNICEF launched the Schools for Africa campaign in Germany to raise money to build schools in some of the crappiest parts of Africa -- but because Africa went out of vogue around the same time as U2, UNICEF needed to get innovative with their campaign. So they decided to go retro and make the link between different cultures visual by slapping some mud in the faces of white kids and saying, "See? Practically the same!"
The teeth aren't racist though. Kid teeth really look like that.
Some translations of the above ads: "In Africa, kids don't come to school late, but not at all" and "Some teachers suck, no teachers suck more." Outrage followed, largely because "sensitivity for the plight of African peoples" and "blackface" are pretty much the exact opposite things.
UNICEF's response was to say that they didn't see what the big deal was, since they had focus-tested the ads in Germany and no one seemed to have any problem with it. Apparently, it never occurred to them that maybe since Germany's population is only 1 percent black, they may not have gotten exactly the focus their tests needed.
But the target audience was white people. Because only white people donate money.
UNICEF did manage to raise the money to build 350 schools -- it's just too bad they couldn't do so without using the same tools they used to make villains in Birth of a Nation.
Demeter Fragrance Debuting a "Scent of Suffering" Perfume
After the Boston Marathon bombing, New York-based perfume company Demeter Fragrance decided they needed to pay tribute to that day's heroes the only way they knew how: by releasing a perfume with the fragrance of smoke and burning rubber.
Why, that's almost as dumb as ...
No. Forget it. No perfume could possibly be dumber.
Some context: Demeter's market is people for whom "pleasant smell" has simply never been enough. Their scents can be loosely categorized into things like "Kindergarten Teacher" (crayons, Play-Doh, and bourbon) and "funeral home" (mildew and earthworms). The "First Response" scent was originally supposed to honor the New York Fire Department, but after the bombing, it suddenly found itself in a bottle dedicated to Boston's police, EMTs, and firefighters. Because great marketing opportunities like a national tragedy don't just crop up every day, ya know.
Now, the smell of smoke and burning rubber are certainly useful smells for triggering the fucking run part of the brain, but as part of a product supporting victims of a recent terrorist attack, they weren't exactly appreciated. Smell is very closely tied to memory -- even the smell of something you really love would turn into nasal night terrors if paired with major trauma.
That's why you still throw up whenever you smell orange and latex.
Actual survivors said that they thought it was "odd" that Demeter would want to put the smell of tragedy in a bottle, but we feel like we can go broader and say that wanting to smell like a bomb victim means there is something wrong with your damn brain.
Bing Equating Disaster Relief With Free Publicity
One day after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Bing announced via Twitter their intention to donate to the victims of the disaster. But whereas most companies just gave money and left it at that, Bing decided to channel Hannibal Lecter and make their donation quid pro quo; specifically, they pledged a donation of $1 per retweet of their initial tweet, all the way up to the princely sum of $100,000.
That's 0.125 percent of Bing's initial advertising budget. And sure, it's a good chunk of cash, but remember: That's the maximum. Bing would need 100,000 retweets to hit the limit, so this tweet would have to be one of the top three most popular tweets of all time before the donation would be notable, so it was way more likely Microsoft was going to get away with donating a paltry two or three grand. Naturally, people got pretty pissed, because even in hives of unmitigated evil and cretinism like the Internet, it's typically frowned upon to use the suffering of thousands as leverage in your bid for free publicity.
And that's on top of the suffering of the thousands who use Bing.
Bing caved after a "#fuckyoubing" hashtag took off, proving once and for all the power of viral marketing. Bing issued the standard "I'm just misunderstood" douchebag apology, and donated the $100,000 after all. But only after being called out on an amount of bullshit so large its emissions alone could power the Earth until the stars die.
A U.K. Terror Hotline Advising Everybody to Mistrust Their Neighbors
In 2010, Great Britain's Association of Chief Police Officers began recording a series of radio PSAs advertising an anti-terrorism hotline by informing suspicious Brits of what kind of behavior they should be reporting. According to one radio spot, signs that your neighbors may be plotting against the Queen included consistently paying for things with cash instead of a debit card, keeping to themselves, and keeping their curtains drawn. Remember: If you can't see their dong, what else might they be hiding?
The ads themselves admitted that this stuff "may mean nothing" but that "together, they all add up to you having suspicions," so you should obviously report them. Hell, they want you to report all your suspicions, about anything anyone does around you, and probably things you're only imagining they did. After all, these people did studies, and science doesn't lie: Anyone who displays even the slightest hint of suspicious activity, financial responsibility, or introversion is about to strap a bomb to his chest and ruin everyone's day -- just as soon as he finishes balancing his checkbook and getting over his agoraphobia.
If that seems nuts, it's because it is. But it's not just the radio spots -- the entire campaign is finding terrorists in its own porridge.
She scratched out the label reading "FLAT 1." Smart ... but not smart enough.
Listeners, rather sensibly, did not appreciate being stigmatized as potential terrorists for simply being their usual shy or lazy selves, to say nothing of the waste of police resources on the inevitable deluge of false leads, or the potential for abuse of the hotline by petty, spiteful douchebags. ACPO apologized, and that one particular ad was officially banned for causing "serious offense." However, others continued to air, some even to this day, including one that slaps a big fat "TERRORIST" label on anyone who holds on to things of emotional value or uses Google Maps.
Unless ... don't you see? It's us. We were the terrorists all along.
White Celebrities Declaring Themselves "African"
In 2006, Alicia Keys' charity Keep a Child Alive launched the "I Am African" campaign, centered on the idea that since humanity itself originated in Africa, we're all one big African family. But Africa is filled with families, with hundreds of wildly disparate ethnic groups, all with very different cultures, so conveying that diversity with images was difficult -- or at least would have been, if Keep a Child Alive had given even the slightest glimmer of a fuck about that.
I am the winds of the Serengeti
I am the sweat of the jungle man
I am the tears of Nelson Mandela
I am the lost boy of the Sudan!
Instead, they just took a bunch of celebrities, slapped some jewelry and face paint on them that look maybe kind of Africanish, and bingo! Instant solidarity. Even the most generous critics pointed out that the questionable use of a "formulaic African aesthetic" resulted only in adding cultural ignorance to an already cringe-worthy pile of sanctimonious moral peacocking. The Photoshop warriors of the Internet pointed out that this was less about raising awareness of suffering in Africa and more about convincing us that Gwyneth Paltrow looked good in tribal garb.
"Africans, unite to save Norwegians from dying of frostbite."
Turns out that a Western celebrity demonstrating that his or her understanding of Africa is limited to broad stereotypes from the 19th century isn't particularly effective at inspiring public empathy.
The E.U. Promoting the Need for Unity (Because of Those Savage Foreigners)
In 2012, the European Commission released "Growing Together," a viral ad to promote the image of the E.U. as a force for peace in a dangerous world. The video begins with a pretty brunette sporting a Kill Bill-style yellow track suit, walking alone through an abandoned train station.
Suddenly, a wild Asian appears! He leaps from the rafters, menacing the woman with his natural martial arts prowess, before shortly being joined by his compatriots: a mystical, bearded, scimitar-waving Indian and a ferocious, half-naked, dreadlocked black man proficient in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira.
You think they'll join forces to summon Captain Planet, but then they just don't.
The racial stereotypes surround the brunette, but rather than engage them in the violence to which their races are naturally inclined, she calmly meditates and wills 11 identical clones into being, surrounds her attackers, and ... either banishes them into the void or absorbs them and gains their power, it's not super clear. Then the camera pans up to reveal the woman and her other selves forming the 12 stars of the E.U. flag, waving in peace and harmony now that the dangerous foreign men have gone away forever.
"We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile."
Growing Together was supposed to be about getting more countries to adopt the Euro, not depicting a Stormfront reader's wet dream. But to certain viewer demographics (for example, people with brains, people with eyes, people without pointy white hoods in the closet) the video was less suggestive of "unity" and "peace" than it was "bloodthirsty barbarians are a threat to white women" and "foreign savages are no match for the wisdom and nobility of the European race." The European Commission tried to explain that it was targeted at 16- to 24-year-olds who understand video games -- which, while certainly explaining the racism, doesn't excuse it. The clip eventually disappeared down the memory hole with your standard backhanded "sorry you were offended" apologies.
In a way, this proves how deeply set these kinds of prejudices are: Even when you're trying to march out a message as positive as "let's band together," you can still trip and go sprawling down the open sewer of ignorance.
Related Reading: This Mountain Dew ad should be in the running for "most offensive ad ever". Right alongside the video game Juiced, which advocated magic-based molestation. And don't worry, we've got buckets more racist ads where those came from.