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What Were They Thinking? The Worst Advertising Mistakes

Carolyn Smurthwaite

We scoured the Internet, saw people's reactions and discovered how companies responded to provide you with this list of awful advertising.

Advertisers are told that "sex sells" and "push the envelope," but at what cost?

How far should a company go to shock people just to get them talking about their product or service?

While large corporations may have the resources to build their brand back from an unfortunate advertisement blunder, small businesses may not have the same ability.

Here are some of the worst advertising attempts that resulted in harming the company's image. Whether your business is big or small—don't let it happen to you!


Recently, Airbnb created an ad campaign stating what San Francisco government should be doing with the money in hotel tax that Airbnb is charged—approximately $1 million a month. Unfortunately, both locals and librarians found the advertisements offensive rather than witty attempts to suggest how San Francisco should spend their tax dollars

Airbnb Ad Campaign

How Airbnb Responded

Airbnb responded saying, "the intent was to show the hotel tax contribution from our hosts and guests, which is roughly $1 million per month. It was the wrong tone and we apologize to anyone who was offended. These ads are being taken down immediately." Maybe Airbnb should have spent their marketing budget creating these advertisements funding their own suggestions.


This commercial originally aired in the 2015 Super Bowl and between the Budweiser and Dorito ads, the depressing reality of childhood mortality doesn't mesh well with the overall feel of Super Bowl Sunday. Many people felt as though it had a major impact on the excitement that the Super Bowl brings to people.

How Nationwide Responded

The advertisement received so much backlash that the company issued an official statement explaining their intent behind the commercial.
"Nationwide ran an ad during the Super Bowl that started a fierce conversation. The sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance."

If the purpose was to start a conversation, the commercial did just that but, unfortunately, not in Nationwide's favor. Later, the executive behind the commercial was asked to leave. 

Belvedere Vodka

The ad received much-deserved backlash after being posted to Belvedere's Twitter and Facebook page. Any advertisement that makes light of sexual assault with "rapey" undertones should not be simultaneously representing a brand name. Belvedere leaves little to the imagination with the woman's horrified face and the tagline "goes down smoothly" an obvious double entendre.

Alicyn Packard, the woman in the image, filed a lawsuit to the parent company for emotional distress and using her image without her consent in an offensive ad. Belvedere took her image from a YouTube video that she had made back in 2011. The video does more harm for the company, as the premise is about two friends reenacting a childhood photo. The woman is already uncomfortable with the situation when the man's own personal *excitement* ruins the innocence of the moment.

Belvedere Vodka Advertisement

How Belvedere Responded

The ad was removed in mere minutes from the company's social media pages. After, the president of the company released an official apology to their Facebook page and donated a generous sum of money to RAINN, an anti-sexual-abuse non-profit organization.


It's amazing how many hands this advertisement passed through without anyone realizing how racist it is. The ad features six black workers bowing down to a nerdy white male. Although it could be defended that the man's smug is from choosing this Intel product, the sinister undertones are hard to ignore. True to its nature, the Internet was quick to point out just how racially insensitive the advertisement is.

Intel Racist Advertisement

How Intel Responded

Intel pulled the advertisement, however, it was somehow passed through and published a second time into a Dell magazine.


Like many companies, Groupon tried to market their product by targeting society's philanthropic nature. As part of their service, Groupon had a Save the Money campaign, where they matched people's donations to various charitable organizations. Although the campaign was meant to be light-hearted, the jokes were not received well by the public.

In the commercial, Cuba Gooding Jr. states, "somebody's got to save them [the whales], but it's more fun watching them jumpin!" This is directly going against the Save the Whales campaign to capitalize on whale watching instead. Groupon, what were you thinking?

How Groupon Responded

Groupon founder Andrew Mason wrote an official statement on the company blog and pulled the campaign within a week. He took complete responsibility for his mistake and swiftly took action to make it right. He did not offer an apology, but rather an explanation. This tactic worked with some customers, but not all which negatively impacted their reputation


Microsoft pushed the limits of their marketing campaign when it blanked New York City with decals advertising its MSN 8 Internet service. The people of New York did not repond positively to the campaign, comparing the butterfly decals littering the streets to graffiti. Not only that but Microsoft's efforts are completely illegal.

Microsoft Guerrilla Marketing Tactic

How Microsoft Responded

Although they claimed that they had permits allowing the guerilla marketing campaign Microsoft had to later apologize for defacing public property. They offered to pay the clean-up bill for the butterfly decal which city officials agreed to.

Burger King

The Burger King ad was for a "Seven Incher" burger released in Singapore, but the advertisement leaves little to the imagination. The model in the picture filed a lawsuit against Burger King for using her image in an advertisement that insinuates oral sex. The image was used without her permission, which was just one of the many ways Burger King failed to produce a positive image for their brand

Burger King It'll Blow Your Mind

How Burger King Responded

Burger King responded to the model by saying they bought the rights for the image. As for the advertisement, they stated it was produced in conjunction with a promotion they were offering only in Singapore. They explained their goal was not to disrespect consumers, however, an official apology was not made. 

Image Credit: stefanamer / Getty Images
Carolyn Smurthwaite Staff
Carolyn Smurthwaite is an editorial intern at and is currently pursuing her marketing degree at San Diego State University. You can find her frequently searching the internet for amusing or interesting pictures and articles to pass along to her friends.