The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing (Pt. 4)

If you misjudge your audience, your million-dollar advertising campaign can wind up costing you much more. These people didn't get that memo.
The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing (Pt. 4)

Marketing is vital to businesses, but it can be risky. If you misjudge your audience, that million-dollar advertising campaign can wind up costing you a billion after court fees and cleanup from the resulting riots. We've shown you here, here, and here where marketing efforts have gone disastrously wrong, but some companies still haven't gotten the memo ...

Nike Unintentionally Sponsors Murder


At the 2012 Olympics, South African runner Oscar Pistorius inspired the whole world by becoming the first double amputee in Olympic history to compete. Although he didn't medal there, he still won tons of gold medals in the Paralympics, as well as our hearts. Pistorius managed to join the elite few athletes who were good enough to become spokesmen for Nike. A shoe company. Even though, you know, he doesn't wear shoes (on account of having nowhere to put them). But there was a bigger problem Nike failed to take into account -- Pistorius was as crazy as a shithouse rat.

The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing (Pt. 4)
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"Hey, at least we're open about being full of crap."

Pistorius started exhibiting some strange behavior. He nursed a mild stimulant addiction, chugging energy drinks and downing caffeine pills like they were going out of style (which, this being the early 2010s, they were). He began collecting guns, which isn't a problem in itself, so long as you don't go firing them in public areas like cars or restaurants. Which he did. Multiple times. He was called out for domestic violence by two former girlfriends. He also managed to drunkenly crash-beach a boat -- a crime pretty much reserved for crazy people/Miami Vice.

But Nike took a chance on this troubled man and welcomed him with a new flagship advertisement:


"Shit ... This is our OJ 'I am the stab in the knife' ad all over again."

This was riiiiight before Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend in Pretoria, South Africa.

Moving so fast, they surely left little adman-shaped smoke clouds behind, Nike pulled the campaign, lost millions of dollars, and gained a reputation for being more tragically prophetic than a Greek oracle.

Blockbuster "Ends" Late Fees; Begins "Late Fees"

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

By 2004, it became apparent that the future of film viewing was a world of instant streaming, torrents, and depraved pornography. In short: The Internet was here, and it had no use for the video store.

Netflix afforded its customers a few perks over the traditional brick-and-mortar store: more selection (sure, it was mostly obscure '90s direct-to-video action flicks, but there were still technically more of them), instant access, lower prices, and best of all, no late fees! Blockbuster understood the appeal and decided to abolish their long-hated "late fees" for good. This, they hoped, would finally get people excited to visit Blockbuster and its inexplicably sticky carpets again.

Unfortunately for anyone who decided to take Blockbuster up on this offer, they didn't so much "abolish" late fees as "rename" them while "significantly increasing" them. Anyone who kept their movie longer than a week after the due date noticed that costly unauthorized charges were being made to their credit card, because Blockbuster had charged them a "restocking fee," which just happened to be the full cost of the movie.

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Universal Studios

So like two bucks, right?

What the company had failed to mention in the ads was that movies over a week late were to be deemed lost, and the cost of their replacement was significantly more than the late fees would ever have been. To be fair, this fee would be cancelled if the customer subsequently returned the movie within a certain window, but at best it was replaced by a $1.25 administrative cost. It almost sounds like some kind of charge, and all for being less than timely in returning the film. If only we had a term for that ...

The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing (Pt. 4)
jtairat/iStock/Getty Images

Not what we had in mind, but that works too.

After a few major lawsuits for misleading advertising, Blockbuster had to cough up around $630,000 to the government, on top of refunding the public all of their "less than timely" charges. They then resumed what they had been doing before this whole mess started, which was digging a small hole in the sand, sticking their heads in there, and humming loud enough to drown out the ever-approaching ax of technological advancement.

Reebok Blows Pretty Much All of the '90s

Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Reebok's first mistakes began with the lead up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Before the games, a rivalry was brewing between American athletes Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien (no relation to our own DOB ... or is there? Did somebody need to start a new life after an embarrassing incident?). Both were heavy favorites to win the gold at the games' most grueling event, the decathlon, even before the qualifying competition. Reebok had the bright idea of bringing both of them on board to hock shoes, doubling their odds at calling dibs on the champion. Sounds like a plan, right? So for the next eight months, the company put out "Dan and Dave" ads, culminating in a Super Bowl commercial that cost millions of dollars, knowing that no matter which of them won the event, the real winners would be Reebok (and fashion-conscious ankles everywhere).

Nobody considered what might happen if both Dan and Dave failed to live up to their lofty expectations. Far from ending with the expected epic showdown at the Olympic Games, the plan began to fall apart when Dan failed to even qualify for the American team, while Dave barely made it into the event.

Reebok, in full panic mode, quickly produced some more ads where Dan cheered on Dave, but that proved less than effective when Dave only narrowly got the bronze medal in the competition. It's still a great accomplishment for any athlete, to be sure, but you don't sell a lot of shoes with "Reebok: Barely Make the Podium."

How sad is it when Sinbad isn't the most disappointing thing in your ads?

That wasn't the end of Reebok's '90s blunders. Later they signed on for a massive product placement deal with the movie Jerry Maguire, which obviously went on to become a classic. Score one for Reebok! Almost! See, a significant plot point in Jerry Maguire involved Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character clashing with a shoe company over sponsorship. Reebok wanted to be that company, and part of the deal was that the film would culminate in a full-on commercial produced by Reebok.

The only problem is that, for the first half of the movie, Reebok acted like jerks toward Gooding's character. The commercial at the end of the film was supposed to redeem the company and make them look like the good guys, but when Reebok repeatedly failed to turn in a reel that director Cameron Crowe was happy with, that whole redemption scene was left on the cutting room floor. So now Reebok is the closest thing the film has to a villain: Cuba Gooding Jr. literally yells "Fuck Reebok!" and the end. Reebok lost $1.5 million from the movie alone. Even though they sued TriStar Pictures and won for an undisclosed amount (they were seeking around $110 million), how much does the abstract sense of betrayal truly cost? Oh, only $23 million? Sweet! Net profit.

The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing (Pt. 4)

Coca-Cola Sells "Magical" Poison

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

At the turn of the 1990s, Coca-Cola needed a new way to get people excited about the non-exciting disambiguation of the term "Coke." The mad scientists in charge of Coke created the MagiCan.

MagiCans were ordinary-looking Coke cans that had a mechanism inside that popped out a gift certificate or cold hard cash to the drinkee. What could go wrong with that? Short of filling the damn things with poison, the promotion was a guaranteed success. Too bad Coke pretty much filled the damn things with poison.

Nobody died or got seriously ill from drinking it or anything, but the water that Coca-Cola put inside the fake cans to make it feel like a normal beverage before opening was found to taste foul, like chlorine, and this tipped off health officials nationwide. Coke went into damage-control mode and started putting out full-page ads warning people not to drink the foul-smelling substance that accompanied their prize cans. "Don't drink our smelly canned beverages, they are poison!" isn't exactly a compelling argument for your canned beverage business. On the one hand, you can see what Coke was thinking: You just won a pretty hefty prize! Who cares about the Coke, go buy yourself another -- maybe you'll win again! On the other hand, you can see what the customer was thinking: Prize-winning is a thirsty business, and you already have a Coke in your hand. Why not just drink that?

The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing (Pt. 4)
punsayaporn/iStock/Getty Images

"Eh, it's still better than New Coke."

It boils down to a simple question: Coca-Cola and chlorinated poison water weigh the same goddamn amount, why not just put Coke in there? If the answer was "It will dissolve the prize and/or mechanism," then holy shit, we have bigger issues to talk about, Coca-Cola.

Needless to say, the Coca-Cola Corporation ended up with whole warehouses full of their magic "automatic lawsuit" potions, so they had no choice but to abort the giant $100 million promotion weeks early.

Environmental Campaign Promises Swift and Brutal Retribution

The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing (Pt. 4)

Unless you're Lex Luthor, you generally don't promote your company or cause by directly threatening your target audience and their children with a violent and bloody death. And even LexCorp is usually a bit more subtle -- their body-explosions are, at best, heavily implied and not outright stated. Not so with the eco-activists behind the 10:10 campaign. Here's the flagship commercial:

The short film opens with a teacher discussing helpful ways for her students to reduce their carbon emissions by 10 percent. After asking how many of her kids are on board, she sees that two of them don't raise their hands. With an understanding smile, she reaches down and presses a button that brutally murders those children. This would be a fucked-up commercial for a digestible-explosives company, much less a peaceful environmental movement. You generally do not want terrible murderers as your mascot; we know Smokey was a bear, but that wasn't so he could viciously maul the careless campers.

The film continues to show us various scenarios where all who oppose the movement, even in the slightest, are gruesomely detonated by grinning sociopaths. The message they intended was clear: "Join us or die." The message the film purveys is more like "Join us or we will kill you." There is a slight difference.

The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing (Pt. 4)

Decades of therapy for viewers, for one.

A predictable public backlash followed (who could have known people were so sensitive about the lives of children?), and although the group behind 10:10 insisted that people just didn't get it, several of their sponsors and even fellow environmentalist groups began withdrawing support. The video was officially taken offline, and went down as the most disastrously out-of-touch charity video campaign in history ... until Kony came along.

When he isn't trying to find potentially damaging ads to companies, Evan V. Symon can be found on Facebook. Be his friend to fill his desperate need to be liked by everyone.

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Related Reading: Prefer your marketing campaigns to be absolutely shameless? Watch CGI Bruce Lee try to sell you booze. And that doesn't even compare to the mountain of shame that was the live Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rock show. Of course, no discussion of disastrous marketing would be complete without the time Avon called all Japanese women whores.

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