Top 10 Worst Marketing Gaffes, Flops, and Disasters

The Consumerist’s guide to the top 10 worst gaffes, flops, and disasters in the history of American marketing and advertising.

10) McDonald’s: “I’d Hit It”

In January 2005, McDonald’s launched an ill-conceived banner campaign featuring a young man slavering over a double cheeseburger. “Double cheeseburger? I’d hit it. I’m a dollar menu guy,” went the animated ad. Amidst controversy, McDonald’s pulled the banners and said their marketing department misunderstood the term. For our part, The Consumerist only copulates with food that’s certified organic fair-trade.


9) New Coke

1985′s “New Coke” was a failed attempt to compete with Pepsi’s larger market share. However, customers found the new formula flat-tasting and overly sugary. After the campaign fizzled, Coca-Cola switched back to the original formula… or did they? Rumors persisted that “New Coke” was a well-designed conspiracy to switch ingredients from cane sugar to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in their bottling plants. Both Snopes and Wikipedia claim the switch to HFCS was made prior to “New Coke’s” introduction, but who can resist a good conspiracy?

8) Honda’s Asimo Falls Down Stairs

Any third-grader with a circuitry board can make a dancing robot, but only Honda can make one that walks up stairs and falls on its space skull. Things haven’t improved much since ED-209, it seems.

7) Calvin Klein’s Amateur Porno Jean Commercial

Calvin Klein has drawn frequent ire for its provocative advertising and use of teenage models. The series of commercials above, however, pushed the envelope right of the cliff. They feature what appear to be “barely (if even) legal” amateur models in a wood-paneled room being interviewed by a creepy older man. For all intents and purposes, they look like prequels to amateur pedophile pornos. Conceptually brilliant but deeply unnerving, the work perhaps deserves a place in the Whitney rather than Kansas TV screens. In August 1995 the commercials were yanked from the airways and Calvin Klein himself issued a public apology.

6) Microsoft Blue Screen Of Death At Press Conference

A classic Microsoft moment. During a press event audience members watch as a pre-release of Windows 98 crashes before their very eyes. Bill Gates was a good sport, chuckling and saying, “That must be why we’re not shipping Windows 98 yet.”

5) Beatles Yesterday and Today Butcher Cover

beatlesyesterday.jpgOn June 14th, 1966, The Fab Four shocked their American record-label with the the infamous “Butcher Cover” of their album Yesterday and Today. After slipping through the cracks during pre-production, 750,000 copies were distributed across America. At first Capitol Records ordered the albums recalled and destroyed, but then it sent out replacement covers to be glued onto the remaining copies.Though Lennon and McCartney were in on the joke, George Harrison later expressed his disapproval, “I thought it was gross, and I also thought it was stupid. Sometimes we all did stupid things thinking it was cool and hip when it was naive and dumb; and that was one of them.”

Yesterday and Today went on to become one of the only Beatle’s albums to actually lose money, thought this probably had less to do with its cover art than that it was a compilation album with no new material.

Bonus: The lame cover it was replaced with.

4) The Tylenol Cyanide Scare of 1982

tylenol.jpgSome product disasters illustrate how a swift company response can mitigate the damaging effects of bad publicity. When Chicago residents suddenly started to die from unknown causes, inspectors drew a link to the Tylenol Extra Strength capsules the citizens took. After ruling out sabotage from the manufacturing facilities, investigators determined someone tampered with the bottles and placed them back on store shelves.

Although many predicted the doom of the Tylenol brand, the pain reliever bounced back within a number of years. Thanks to a swift PR response which included media outreach, discontinued advertising, and putting the safety of the consumer before profit, headache-sufferers eventually forgave Tylenol.

Bonus: Thanks in part to the Tylenol scare, urban legends of cyanide poisoners linger in the public consciousness, casting a looming specter over Halloween

3) Ford Edsel

Named after Henry Ford’s so, the Edsel automobile launched on “E Day”, September 4th, 1957 with much fanfare and hype. Featuring “Teletouch” steering wheel electric gear-shifting, self-adjusting brakes, and a nifty speedometer redesign, the Edsel failed to resonate with consumers. People still debate the exact reasons for the failing but the general consensus is that Ford didn’t have its finger on the pulse of what Americans wanted. Maybe consumers were put off by statements like, “There’s even the luxury of Edsel air suspension. It’s just like riding on air, because you are.” Whatever the cause, $400,000,000 worth of development was blown in two years when the Edsel was discontinued on November 19th, 1959.

2) AC vs DC: Thomas Edison Electrocutes Topsy The Elephant

Starting in the 1880′s, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison became fierce rivals over what the best way to deliver energy into American houses. Edison favored the Direct Current (DC) approach, touting its safety. Westinghouse favored Nikola Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC) method as it solved a number of prohibitive cost factors and allowed for more efficient delivery.

Edison launched a a bitter publicity campaign, designed to frighten the public into using Direct Current. Under his command, Edison filmed and publicized a number of Alternating Current executions of animals including that of Topsy the Elephant (shown). The executions were designed to show how unsafe Alternating Current could be, as it “Westinghoused” his victims. Despite Edison’s fervent desire to bring Direct Current into every home in America, he ultimately lost the War of Currents due to the impracticality of wide scale deployment.

Bonus: Harold Brown, an Edison employee, developed the first electric chair to further underscore AC’s danger. After the first botched use of the chair in 1890, Westinghouse commented, “They would have done better using an axe.”

1) The LZ 129 Hindenburg

One might consider the 1937 Hindenburg disaster clips one of the world’s first “viral videos”. The footage and pictures of the event were so damaging that they decimated the public trust in the possibility of a “Zeppelin Era” – a world where travel was dominated by flying air balloons.

If the Nazis had their druthers, the Hindenburg would have carried a swastika as prominently as we might have seen a Goodyear logo, but zeppelin designer Hugo Eckener was uneasy with the use of his airships for propaganda. He was much more comfortable with envisioning a future of mass passenger transport across the Atlantic carried upon the decks of his flying ships.

Due to a US embargo on helium, Eckener was forced to use flammable hydrogen in order to keep his beloved dirigible aloft for its transatlantic journey to Lakehurst, NJ. Amid an audience of thousands of spectators and radio personality Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness report, the Hindenburg suddenly burst into a fiery ball of flames. The images would find themselves ingrained on the collective consciousness of popular art and Morrison’s words, “Oh, the humanity!”, would outlive the disaster for years to come. Many note that other political factors played a role in the long-term demise of the zeppelin, but nothing captured the moment more perfectly than the image of the Hindenburg’s flaming metal skeleton as silhouetted people scattered in terror.

Hot on the tailfins of the disaster was an-up-and coming airline named Pan America. Their stable of flying “Clippers” filled the Hidenburg’s void.

— THOMAS MOORE and BEN POPKEN

Comments

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  1. DieBrucke says:

    100% Sure that number 7 is from the mid 1990s not 1985. Otherwise, I would not know it ever happened and remember seeing the commercials after school.

  2. Elaine Chow says:

    Oh my god, that electrocuting the elephant thing is horrible! Was that for real, or was that a PR push? Oh Thomas Edison… why?

  3. faust1200 says:

    Oh c’mon. This is the clear winner here:http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7935064058166993925


    “Question: Why take diet pills when you can enjoy Ayds?”

  4. Pelagius says:

    1982 = Worst. Halloween. Ever. Despite the fact that I grossed about $20 in pocket change that day, on an emotional level it sure didn’t beat a satchel full of sugary junk.

  5. ElizabethD says:

    Slavering, not slathering. (first item)

  6. Anyone remember the name of the photographer, whose work, that Calvin Klein campaign was based on?

    Wasn’t it Guy Bourdin?

  7. acambras says:

    @faust1200:

    Yes, I do remember that Ayds ended up being a very unfortunate name for an appetite suppressant.

    I thought the Tylenol poisonings were in the Seattle area?

  8. KenyG says:


    very cool marketing – caught the following at a hockey game the other night – on the boards around the rink…

    McDonalds – I’m Lovin it – right next to big blue VIAGRA

  9. KenyG: Apparently, McDonalds won’t be happy until everyone associates their food with sex.

    ……eww.

    On the other hand, it could bring the number of unintended pregnancies down to practically 0%.

  10. formergr says:

    Definitely the mid-90s, DieBrucke is right.

    Also, is the proof-reading machine down today? Lots of typos and spelling errors, some in the piece above, the rest scattered throughout today’s other postings.

  11. acambras says:

    @formergr:

    There’s a proofreading machine? Can I order a couple of those for my office?

  12. MeOhMy says:

    @spatuladeity: It was for real. Topsy the elephant was slated to be put down anyway having killed 3 people.

    Like so many geniuses, Edison was a bit of a quack when you get right down to it.

  13. nakmario says:

    Edison was an assh*le.

    If the movie the Prestige taught me anything it was that Tesla was a cool kat.

  14. Tim Nudd says:

    So many to choose from. How about Just for Feet’s 1999 Super Bowl ad showing the “JFF Patrol” in a Humvee hunting down a barefoot Kenyan so they can put Just for Feet shoes on him?

    http://www.salon.com/media/col/shal/1999/05/28/kenya/print

  15. spanky says:

    Once, for about ten minutes, Reebok had a line of women’s running shoes called “Incubus.”

  16. Aeroracere says:

    The newswoman in #9? I’d hit it.

  17. megnificent says:

    @acambras: You’re thinking of Stella Nickell, the Seattle-area woman who poisoned her husband with cyanide-laced Excedrin. She then tampered with 3 more bottles and put them back onto store shelves to make it look like another Tylenol scare. IIRC another person died after buying one of those bottles. She got caught after her daughter turned her in.

  18. SecureLocation says:

    Even at the time the Beatles cover seemed dumb and tasteless. I think they felt at that stage in their fame that they could do no wrong…which was wrong.

  19. “4) The Tylenol Cyanide Scare of 1982″

    Dude, since this is Marketing Gaffes, Flops, and Disasters (not “horrifically bad publicity”), I don’t think Tylenol belongs. Johnson & Johnson’s response to the cyanide scare was a model for companies facing recalls of epic proportions and publicity disasters. They could not have done everything MORE RIGHT, and as a result enjoy a level of consumer trust unmatched in pharmaceuticals.

    People give Tylenol to their infants with 100% confidence that if ANYTHING goes wrong with ANYTHING, J&J will respond with nuclear-level action and recall, repair, and prevent everything they can. (Rather than hide, delay, drag, push blame elsewhere, etc.)

    Actually, J&J is a case study in the Business Ethics textbook I teach from (their ethics code is considered a model for all kinds of businesses) and one of their statements is, more or less, “Mothers give their babies our products. Be worthy of that trust.”

  20. Brian D says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: I totally agree. Hardly one of the worst since they had nothing to do with it, and they came out of it pretty well.
    Little known factoid: They never caught the cyanide poisoner! (Though they did convict a guy for attempting to extort Tylenol afterward, but he was never charged with the murders)

  21. InsaneNewman says:

    @Eyebrows McGee:

    Yup, and I second this. While an interesting story, the Tylenol Scare doesn’t belong on the the list of Marketing Gaffes, Flops, and Disasters. It’s a classic case study in reactionary marketing done right.

    Also, the new Coke fiasco should (in my opinion) be higher on the list. That was 100% stupid.

  22. B says:

    Yea, but it was a disaster for their marketing deptartment. The point is they overcame it. Also, by that logic, the Hindenburg doesn’t belong here either.

  23. skittlbrau says:

    How are we overlooking the clear soda craze that swept the nation? I cannot forget how disgusting and not at all like brown soda they tasted.

    Pepsi Clear? No thanks.

  24. ElizabethD says:

    @formergr:

    I will volunteer to be the proofreading machine. Well, if they pay me. I’ve been trying hard to be a good, non-nitpicky consumerist here. But it hurts! It’s killin’ me!! [slumps forward in chair]

  25. Those C/K commercials are totally creepy. Like, creepier than creepy. Thanks for sharing! The creepiness!

  26. @baa: Remember the Crystal Pepsi commercial, complete with Van Halen’s “Right Now”?

  27. @baa: You can still find vintage “unopened” bottles of Crystal Clear on ebay. It’s probably undrinkable by now, I’d guess, but I really enjoyed the taste.

    Then again I was but a wee one when it came out and I think I was partially buying into the hype. Incidentally, the drink bawls tastes very similar to my memory of what Crystal Clear kind of tasted like.

  28. acambras says:

    @baa:

    I remember that when Crystal Pepsi was introduced, Saturday Night Live did a “commercial” for “Crystal Gravy.” It was a thick, viscous, phlegmy yet clear substance, but the actors were chugging it like it was a refreshing sports drink.

  29. GiselleBeardchen says:

    I was about 6 years old when the Edsel came out. I remember overhearing one of my Dad’s friends telling him that on next year’s model they were going to put some hair around the front and call it the “Ethel”. About 10 years later, I got it.

  30. faust1200 says:

    Ya everything in the mid 90′s suddenly became “clear” and “now with baking soda.”

  31. Kat says:

    What, no Titanic? Especially after they called it unsinkable?

  32. CeilingCat says:

    I’m surprised BK’s “Spot Herb” campaign from the mid 80′s isn’t on there. Come to think of it, the recent creepy commercials with the BK dummy stalking people and appearing in their beds should be on there too. Brrr..

  33. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    You left out the “Drink Schlitz or I’ll Kill You” TV ads.
    Combined with a new brewing process that made weird looking beer, Schlitz went from #2 to nothing.

  34. marzolian says:

    I’m disappointed with this list. Pepsi did NOT have a larger market share than Coke. Their share was growing and Coke was losing to Pepsi in blind taste tests. Honda’s Asimo does some amazing things and I’m sure they will fix whatever made it fall down. Unlike the other items on this list, the Tylenol cyanide scare had nothing to do with the manufactuerer and they have recovered, mostly because (IMO) they didn’t try to hide anything but responded immediately and offered refunds no questions asked.

  35. brttf3 says:

    I was actually the second assistant director on the CK ‘kiddie porn’ ad’s as we called them. the director ( and photographer of the accompanying print campaign ) was steven meisel.

    it was shot in a little studio in manhattans west village around ’95.

    it was creppy when we shot it, and it is still creepy now.

  36. dancing_bear says:

    In the early 1970s United Airlines had a campaign to get the married male executive to take his wife with him on his next business trip. Afterwards, United would send a note of appreciation to the wife, saying thank you for flying our friendly skies, blah, blah, blah. It turns out many executives took mistresses, and the letter to the wifey got the executive into pretty hot water!

  37. After watching the Calvin Klein commercial I feel like running blindly away from my computer and off of a cliff into the purifying sanctity of the ocean where I hope to drown.

    I cant even watch the rest of these commercials. I truly feel so filthy after watching the commercial that I dont think I could handle the internet anymore today.

    Thanks Consumerist for scarring my already addled soul.

    I will try and come back tomorrow after I have purged the filth from my ….

    I cant stop shuddering.

    I have to go now.

  38. madktdisease says:

    Poor Asimo! He really should have been watching where he was going, though.

  39. Jesse in Japan says:

    So did they ever find the bodies of those kids from the Calvin Klein commercials?

  40. OnoSideboard says:

    Ooh, this is a really fun post. A couple of comments:

    1. I distinctly remember an episode of Forensic Files (Court TV, baby!) about the Tylenol tampering. I suppose there may have been two, but the one the show profiled took place in Seattle, and the culprit was a woman who wanted to kill her husband. In order to “get away with it,” she tampered with multiple bottles of Tylenol and then returned the bottles to various stores. So in addition to killing her husband, some totally innocent people died, too. But they caught her because of some kind of unique crystals from a fish tank that were mixed in with the cyanide, that the police traced back to the perp.

    2. Some recent research I did on the Hindenburg (beacuse I’m a geek) revealed some interesting information about the infamous “Oh, the humanity!” line. If you listen to the entire recording Morrison made, before the tragedy, he repeatedly referred to the folks on the ground awaiting the Hindenburg (to tie it down or whatever) as “the humanity.” It is likely that Morrison’s actual words were “ALL the humanity!” and that he was referring to the workers who were in danger.

  41. emax4 says:

    and Newman from Seinfeld used that “Oh, the humanity” line when he hit a sewing machine with his postal truck, then the sparks ignited turpentine on the ground.

  42. ZonzoMaster says:

    Wow, that Calvin Klein ad was totally creepy, i would put that one higher definitely. It seems that they used a very porn-ambient-voice, i was confused at i was actually watching. A total WTF video.

  43. helio9000 says:

    Millions of people buy coke and it is a cultral icon, changing it at all was a massive undertaking – only a very few people have ever heard of Asimo and fewer still are ever going to buy Asimo. Putting that ahead of the Coke debacle makes no sense whatsoever.

  44. RevFelix says:

    OK — I just thought someone should correct the statement that _Yesterday and Today_ “was a compilation album with no new material.” Well, it WAS, in essence, a compilation album for the American market consisting mostly of material that was already released in Britain, but it was mostly new to America, and I believe it even had a couple songs that saw release here before they were released in Britain. Y&T was an “extra” album for the American market, produced from the American labels’ habit of “butchering” British albums (hence part of the reason for the cover idea, since this practice generally aggravated the British artists), dropping a few tracks, messing with the order, even renaming them & using different cover art, etc. Then they’d sometimes squeeze an extra album out of the tracks they dropped before, plus, perhaps, new tracks, singles, etc. This also explains why Y&T isn’t on CD, except for pirates, like one I’ve seen around in a series of pirates of the Beatles’ American albums.

    The Beatles certainly weren’t the only victims of this — I have an American LP of Pink Floyd’s first album, _The Piper at the Gates of Dawn_ (released on Capitol stateside, as were the Beatles’ albums), which drops some tracks from the British version, adds a couple singles & messes with the order a bit, although it keeps the same cover art. That was how I knew the album for quite a while, until I got the album on CD & heard it the way it was meant to be heard.

  45. aidan.hadley says:

    I remember so many commentators saying those Calvin Klein ads looked exactly like kiddie porn. My question then and now is: How is it that everyone is so familiar with what kiddie porn looks like? That was more disturbing than the actual ads.

    Oh, and the Hindenberg was undone by its aluminum powder-coated fabric and static electricity, not the hydrogen.

  46. tubgnome says:

    The Beatles’ “butcher” photograph was never intended to be an album cover, and the group didn’t have anything to do with the release of “Yesterday and Today.” It was assembled by Capitol Records themselves, who apparently didn’t anticipate the public’s reaction to the photo. Snopes has more.

  47. Trai_Dep says:

    New Coke is a classic business marketing case. They had ALL the correct information but asked the wrong question. Taste tests, external (Pepsi Challenge ™) and internal, showed that there was a marked preference for Pepsi over Coke. Low absolute numbers (think around 13% or so?) but for that market, a point is a LOT of money.

    So Coke reformulated, ran their new beverage against Pepsi and Coke. New Coke won! Against both!!

    Very extensive surveys, cunningly crafted. Lots of wizardry in the lab to figure out the best way to tweak the Coke formula. All top-notch.

    Neglected to test in a real, unblindfolded taste-test environment. Whoops!

    The resulting fiasco unfolded.

    Coke neglected to account for brand loyalty and association. Ironic, since, once these things are removed, all you have is $0.12 of sugar, water and carmel coloring in a can.

    Totally understandable how it could happen, though. A little blind spot while the train’s surging forward and it could happen to all of us.

  48. Aguraki says:

    I could be wrong, but the Mcdonalds’ one should be much higher on the list. come on, he’s talking about having sex with a burger. I mean, where’s the resistance?

  49. WV.Hillbilly says:

    Dancing_bear’s example smelled suspiciously like an urban legend. And so it is:
    http://www.snopes.com/love/betrayal/wifeflight.asp

  50. Smashville says:
  51. drewisarobot says:

    Don’t forget the beautifully orchestrated Microsoft Windows Vista speech recognition messup.

  52. sr105 says:

    the porn-esque commercial was creepy. I’ve always wondered why 90% of commercials featuring lots of little children running and jumping on beds in their underwear do not constitute child porn (for the sake of fairness). If you dropped the video quality and put the commercial in some guy’s closet, he’d go to prison for that. It just seemed wrong.

  53. LucyInTheSky says:

    call me crazy, but the first time i saw the butcher cover, i totally got the joke and thought it was great. i mean, kind of gross, but great. it was just inappropriate for the time, nowadays i think people would get away with it. And yes, the cover that replaced it was boring.