The 5 Most Disastrous Marketing Failures of All Time
In a world where it feels like we're all brainwashed by corporate marketing campaigns, it's nice to see them fall flat on their faces now and then. And trust us, when big promotional stunts go wrong, it can get ugly.
We've covered many of these marketing screw-ups in the past, as part of our continuing effort to mock our corporate overlords:
Jagermeister Sponsors a Pool Party, Turns the Water into Poison
Like most disastrous plans, this one looked pretty sweet on paper. "We're the prime party beverage for frat boys who are already too drunk to know what they're ingesting, so let's throw them a big pool party! It'll be ladies in bathing suits and hunky dudes all partying in sunny Mexico, with plenty of Jagermeister to go around!"
"It'll be like magic! And it'll taste like magic markers!"
Sounds great! "Oh, and you know what would be really cool? If the swimming pool had this cool mist coming off of it, like in a music video. Let's dump a bunch of liquid nitrogen into the water! I wonder why nobody has tried this before!?!"
Here's a tip that's applicable both to corporate events and backyard pool parties: Do a quick Google search beforehand to make sure that nothing you're dumping into your pool has the potential to react and create a chemical warfare agent. If the party organizers had done this, they'd have realized what happens when pool chlorine and liquid nitrogen combine. The result is nitrogen trichloride, a toxic gas that will break up just about any party:
As you can see, nitrogen trichloride creates a horrific knock-out gas more effective at dispersing a crowd than anything the riot cops normally use to break up Jagermeister parties. People began hacking and coughing almost immediately, then passing out -- all together, eight people were hospitalized, and one guy even ended up in a coma (he wound up spending 18 days in the hospital). All of this while bangin' rave music blared in the background, because block-rockin' beats are the official soundtrack to any summer tragedy in the making.
At least four complaints were filed with the government, and Jagermeister was quick to issue a statement reminding everyone that they are normally all about promoting safe drinking activities.
United Way Drops 1.5 Million Balloons All Over Cleveland
Cleveland is one of those places that constantly needs good PR to distract people from the reality that it's Cleveland, and to help everyone forget about the debacle that was 10-cent beer night. So on September 27, 1986, the United Way set up a promotion with a safe, family-friendly angle. They decided on balloons. In an attempt to break the world record set just a year before by the city of Anaheim, California, the United Way scheduled Balloon Fest, featuring the simultaneous release of 1.5 million of the things. Sure enough, it looked really cool:
Like a giant, agile cat, springing upward and bursting into pixels.
What could go wrong with that? Everybody loves balloons. After the release, it was assumed they would do what balloons naturally do -- fly further upwards until they pop.
However, the people in charge clearly tuned out after Willard Scott wished a bunch of centenarians a happy birthday and didn't stick around for the local forecast. If they had, they would've known it was going to rain hard that day. The rain pushed the balloons back down -- until downtown Cleveland was buried under a layer of balloons, as if the city had been the victim of the world's lamest Batman villain.
"The Jackson Pollocker strikes again!"
Over the following weeks, it became clear just how damaging a million-plus balloons can be. A runway at Burke Lakefront Airport had to shut down because running over thousands of exploding helium balls isn't the best way to speed up pre-flight. A woman's prize horses panicked at the sight of thousands of balloons and injured themselves, resulting in a $100,000 settlement.
But then it got much, much worse. Thousands of balloons descended upon Lake Erie during a search and rescue mission for two missing boaters ...
... exactly as the lame Batman villain had planned ...
... and it became impossible to find two bobbing heads when there were suddenly countless objects that looked like heads. By the time the Coast Guard finally found the boaters, they had long since drowned.
The United Way ended up facing a $3.2 million lawsuit from the widow of one of the boaters. She later settled for an undisclosed sum, and fortunately nothing bad ever happened in Cleveland ever again.
All right, we promise nobody dies in this next one ...
Guns N' Roses Calls Dr Pepper's Bluff
In 1994, Guns N' Roses announced their album Chinese Democracy. By 2008, we were still waiting for it to be released.
Slash, meanwhile, released four albums and founded two bands.
Dr Pepper decided to capitalize on Rose's lethargy to get anything done. In March of 2008, they announced that they would give a free can of Dr Pepper to every American should the album come out before the end of the year. It seemed like a win-win for the company -- not only were they offering free stuff that they'd never actually have to follow through on, they painted themselves as a bunch of cool music lovers, simply out to give Rose that one final bit of motivation to release the album (after all, unless his non-recording activities included "renounce America," he would get a free can too). It was the perfect plan ... unless, of course, Rose actually released the thing.
Which, naturally, he totally did. Less than eight months after Dr Pepper announced the campaign, Guns N' Roses dropped Chinese Democracy at long last, and the Pepper people were screwed. Not only were they not prepared to give away hundreds of millions of cans of their product, they didn't actually have a way for people to claim their can. They hastily set up a website, which crashed under the weight of millions and millions of simultaneous clicks.
Speaking of too-easy jokes: Dr Pepper's next web venture.
Ultimately, very few people (if any) got a free can. To make matters worse, Rose sued the company for lying to the people. Because if there's anybody who abhors dishonesty and empty promises, it's Axl Rose.
Speaking of disastrous corporate giveaways ...
American Airlines Accidentally Lets People Fly Free Forever
In 1981, American Airlines decided to seduce the rich people 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 in coach if you're doing it all by your lonesome?
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. 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.
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!"
Just for Feet's Superbly Racist Super Bowl Ad
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 mistake 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 ...
Dressed for snowboarding, for some reason.
... roaring along in a Hummer with his companions:
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:
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 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.
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.