5 Marketing Fails of 2021

A successful piece of marketing content can elicit a number of emotions. These range from desire, to trust, to engagement, to loyalty, to urgency of the “I need that thing NOW” kind. Executing successful marketing takes skill, practice, and a genuine understanding of your audience. It also takes a fair degree of good judgment, which, as you may have gathered by the title of this blog, isn’t always guaranteed. 

On the flip-side of successful marketing campaigns are the truly disastrous ones. You know, those ads that leave you feeling both amused and offended, bewildered yet saturated with incomprehensible information, and simultaneously repulsed and fascinated. Those ads that make you think; “was everyone in this approvals committee spiked with suspicious brownies before this pitch meeting?” or even “have I somehow stumbled into a time-machine that transported me back to the 50s?” The thing with truly, shockingly bad ads is that, though they may have the opposite effect they were intended to, they always somehow linger in your mind. You can’t help but recall them from time to time, if with considerable apprehension. You might even hum the ghastly little jingle under your breath. 

We want to take a look at some of those trainwreck campaigns, think about what makes them so incredibly unfortunate, and, in some cases, tell you what we would have done instead. 

1. That Burger King tweet on Women's Day

This absolute blunder of an effort to acknowledge International Women’s Day by Burger King in 2021 was so widely ridiculed that if this is the first time you’re seeing it, congratulations on escaping the desert island you were stuck on. Did you make a raft? 

What was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek, attention-grabbing headline to introduce a scholarship campaign turned into a downright insulting, dated value statement. This appears to have been because the marketing team behind this campaign genuinely misunderstood the UI of the platform their copy was going to be displayed on. If you take a look at the image on the right, which consists of the initial tweet, and then replies in that tweet’s thread, one can clearly see the intention behind them wanting “more women in the kitchen.” The joke is a little edgy but eventually well-meaning and harmless. The fatal flaw in this team’s logic, however, is thinking that it would appear that way on their audience’s feeds. How it DID appear was like the image on the left. No explanation, no scholarships, no satire, just classic ol’ sexism. Delightful.

See, in order to actually access that thread, users would need to click on the offending (and offensive) tweet, which many were way too put off to do. This team turned a feminist initiative into a dated trope, all because they didn’t bother to double-check how the Twitter news feed works. 

How we would have prevented this:  
Firstly, never create content that has glaringly offensive undertones when screenshotted in isolation. Even if your intentions are pure as the driven snow, some blogger somewhere is going to use that to cancel you. Be CAREFUL with your copy.  Secondly, if you’ve got something great to show off, put that front and center. Lead with your generous scholarship offer and not your joke, because that is the main impetus behind your post. This way, even if your audience doesn’t read further, they know the crux of what you’re attempting to say. Thirdly, understand your platform. Do research before posting. And lastly – and we mean this one, so listen up – if your campaign sounds like it could have been suggested in an episode of Mad Men, bin it right now. Society has evolved past the need for Don Draper. We know he’s hot, but no can do, folks.


burger king tweet single marketing fail
burger king full tweet marketing fail

2. When John Lewis insurance made themselves look really bad

To understand why this ad campaign was such a monumental flop, you first need to understand what John Lewis does. They’re a high-end department store that recently launched a home insurance offering with their ‘Let Life Happen’ campaign.  The concept they bafflingly settled on was so off-base that they got into trouble with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for being ‘potentially misleading.’ 

The content of the ad itself is pretty innocuous. It features a young child, all elbows, knees and mischievous grins, bungling through his home and making a mess. There’s a Fleetwood Mac soundtrack, he’s wearing a dress, feathers appear like confetti. An adorable rampage ensues, like he’s Stevie Nicks incarnate, but smaller and presumably less angry. He’s throwing glitter everywhere and painting his face and it’s honestly kind of a mood. As the screen fades to black on the glorious wreckage of a family home, up pops the sentence “Let Life Happen.”

What could be wrong with that, you might ask? Well, it turns out that John Lewis insurance only covers ACCIDENTAL damage. If you were to look through their policies, the conditions would explain that this little man did DELIBERATE damage. John Lewis is, effectively, using an event they DON’T offer coverage for to sell you coverage. Unless they’re directly advocating for insurance fraud, this ad has literally nothing to do with the product they’re trying to sell. That all makes this company come across as excessively shady. If there’s one thing you don’t want to be called as an insurance brand, it’s shady. You almost got us with the Fleetwood Mac, John Lewis. You almost did…

How we would have prevented this:
When conceptualizing a campaign, it’s imperative that you define your message and objective BEFORE brainstorming starts. No matter how endearing an idea is, if it doesn’t communicate directly to your objective, that idea must be shelved. Constantly referring back to your initial goals in the development process will keep you from straying too far off track. Also, if your audience ever catches you in a perceived deception, all of your hard work establishing trust over your years in business is immediately erased. Tread carefully and lead with honesty. And don’t disrespecting Queen Stevie like that. We take that seriously.

john lewis ad marketing fail kid

3. A Kardashian makes world peace happen with a can of soda

“And so, when the beaches of Normandy cleared, there stood a single influencer, with one single beverage, bringing the light of love, and ending the great war. Sugar free.” – the guy who came up with this abomination of a campaign, probably.

This is the ad that spawned a thousand memes, and rightfully so. In short, it features it-girl Kendall Jenner noticing a strangely well-lit protest full of good looking people carrying signs, upset about nothing in particular, and decides to ditch her (presumably paid) photoshoot to go… walk… with them? She takes off her ….wig? And then encounters a group of policemen, with whom there appears to be a semblance of tension. Jenner then… hands them a Pepsi? And the also-good-looking cop smiles a bit? And for some reason everyone starts to cheer because presumably the world is now healed and oppression is gone and everybody is debt-free and gets a pony? 

Listen, we don’t understand it either. Even the bit with the rooftop cello player in a flannel. What made it offensive as well as confusing, though, was its total blindness to social issues it was piggybacking. In the USA in particular, in the years leading up to this campaign, widespread concerns surrounding police brutality being disproportionately used against people of color sparked nationwide protests that resulted in loss of life, pain, division, and further political struggle. To use those motifs of protest and struggle as promotional tools speaks of very little empathy to the groups affected, and to suggest that these problems could be solved by a white lady with a cooldrink when whole POC communities couldn’t fix them is deeply insulting.

How we would have prevented this: 
We know that getting involved in trending and relevant topics can result in huge organic reach, but we have said this before and will say it again: STAY IN YOUR LANE. If your company is not directly involved and these events are hurting people, inserting a corporate voice into the narrative effectively speaks over the human voices that need to be heard to solve the problem. If you are committed to creating a campaign around social justice, rather than make “tragedy theatre” ads like this, use your money and platform to support organizations providing aid, and make a meaningful difference that’s not driven by profit. It’s gross. 

kendall pepsi marketing fail bad blunder

4. Victoria's Secret somehow forgets that there is more than one body type (again)

Take a look at the image on the left. Concentrate really hard. Look closely. Do those models all have something in common? It’s ok if you want to take another look to make sure. Because we ALL know the fashion industry has ALWAYS made a concerted effort to be representative of diverse body types. *Eyes roll so far back that they exit my head and bump softly against the door of my home office with a light squelching sound.*

Though, at this point, we shouldn’t be surprised when outlets like Victoria’s Secret feature models that are an unobtainable body type for the vast majority of women, this particular example was so overt that it sparked widespread outrage. We’re not trying to say the women pictured here aren’t beautiful – they’re radiant! However, by representing only an idealistic beauty that is simply not on the cards for 80% of people as “perfect,” Victoria’s Secret is actively preying on women’s fears that they will never be good enough. After all, if you can’t be perfect, why even try? It’s not ethical to create a fear and then market your products to somehow “quell” it, especially in a society in which eating disorders and body dysmorphia amongst the youth are so prevalent. This tone-deaf attempt at fearmongering sparked such backlash that it even filtered into the real world. Swarms of disgruntled women took to protesting at Victoria’s Secret outlets bearing signs that said “#iamperfect.” 

Moral of the story: Don’t try to market to your audience by making 90% of that audience feel like garbage. 

How we would have prevented this: 
When you have an accurate idea of who your audience is, you can create marketing content that speaks to them directly. A great way to do this is by featuring their “lookalikes” – not just physically, but personality-wise, too – in your content. Rather than presenting an ideal, present a relatable everyday figure. Create trust rather than fear in your approach to marketing and your fanbase is much more likely to stick around for the long haul. Also, body-shaming is so 2004. How lame? 

5. We don't even know what to call this

You ever felt like an ad was about to actually murder you? 

We don’t really have the words to explain this. Just watch it, and also don’t use this travel agency because you might go missing. Sorry in advance. 

How we would have prevented this: 
Stopped the pitch meeting right there, given the person who suggested this the rest of the day off, and reassessed the work environment at our agency. Maybe changed some locks. 

We know these bad ads are entertaining to look at and reflect on, but they stop being fun when they’re tied to your brand. One negative marketing impression could lead a potential customer to NEVER consider your offerings again, so it’s crucial that you minimize the possibility in your marketing strategy for these kinds of mistakes. Unfortunately, if you’re not too familiar with the marketing world, it can be challenging to figure out where these potential obstacles hide. 

That’s where we come in! Here at Dawning Digital, we’ve seen how easy it can be to make small mistakes with disastrous consequences when you’re handling your own marketing. We’d love to guide you to a place where you’re creating authentic, responsible ads with no risk of big blunders, and help you get them out into the world. If you’re interested in a helping hand (and not ending up on one of these lists!) introduce yourself to us today.