Marketing Strategies That Failed Spectacularly

failed marketing strategies

Behind every marketing campaign is a team of execs, fact checkers, art directors and more. You’d think this would result in well-planned, well-executed strategies every single time. But, of course, marketing teams are only human – and humans can be really, really dumb. As these examples of failed marketing strategies prove, sometimes even the biggest dogs in the game can have a swing and a great big, costly miss.

10. Snapple’s Sticky Situation

In June 2005, Snapple decided the best way to gain attention for its new popsicle product, “Kiwi-Strawberry On Ice”, was to go big: really big. Snapple took on the previous Guinness Book of World Records holder for “Largest Popsicle”, constructing a 17.5-ton popsicle.

© CBS News

The tasty monolith was constructed in New Jersey and hauled to New York on a freezer truck kept at -15 degrees Fahrenheit. On arrival, they dangled the popsicle over East 17th Street in Manhattan by a crane. Somewhere in the process, however, the popsicle’s core had melted. This meant that when the crane lifted it into the air, the mushy, sticky innards flooded the streets.

Passers-by were reportedly slipping in the puddles, and the mixture was growing increasingly sticky in the summer sun. Authorities had to step in for the cleanup, which Snapple later paid for, leaving the whole ordeal as nothing short of a total disaster.

© The Points Guy

Snapple never figured out why the popsicle didn’t keep its solid form, but it was likely a combination of incomplete initial freezing, the hot sun, and a marketing team with more money than brains.

9. Out With The Oldsmobile: Failed Ad Campaigns

In 1988, an American car brand produced by General Motors, decided to take the “Olds” out of its Oldsmobile namesake and prove that they were ‘cool’ now.

© Vintage Ad Browser

While brand rejuvenation is often a wise move, it all hinges on smart approaches to new markets. Unfortunately, adopting the campaign slogan ‘it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile’ wasn’t the wisest choice. The accompanying adverts featured a typical 80s, synthesizer-heavy jingle, as well as artsy shots of the youth, attempting desperately and clumsily to appeal to the ‘new generation’.

It failed miserably, as the car itself had barely changed at all, meaning the kids did not show any interest. Meanwhile, the loyal customers who had enjoyed the Oldsmobile in the past were alienated, fearing that the car they’d loved had now been changed in some way.

In the following decade or so, Oldsmobile became obsolete. Great job Oldsmobile; it’s not often you alienate both potential markets in one fell swoop!

8. Frequent Flyers

In the 1980s, airlines were hit hard by new regulations, stiff competition, and the changing face of the airline business. In an attempt to gain attention and thus profit, American Airlines announced the Unlimited AAirpass, which, for the mere sum of $250,000, would entitle the bearer to free flights for the rest of their life. Well, it was one of the biggest marketing fails.

Twenty eight people took advantage of this deal before American realized that rising operation costs – and overenthusiastic usage of the passes – wasn’t profitable. As a matter of fact, it soon started losing them money. Two individuals contributed to this loss more than anyone else: Jacques Vroom and Steve Rothstein. The two held passes until July 2008, when American calculated that their flights, totaling millions of miles each year, were costing the company $1 million each, annually.


Rothstein was even noted to have taken regular trips across the Atlantic simply for a bite to eat with friends. Soon, American Airlines began stripping customers of their unlimited passes in airports, very publicly, resulting in costly legal proceedings as well as a permanently-tarnished reputation. Today’s AAirpass allows on-demand travel for a discounted rate, but endless free trips to Chicago just for a slice of pizza are – unfortunately – off the cards.

Hoover vacuums’ British arm made a similar mistake in 1992, when they launched a promotion offering two free return flights to Europe with a purchase of more than £100. The company expected to make profits from the various small-print loopholes and profitable extras travel agents were encouraged to push.

© Walmart

When the first promotion went well, Hoover began offering flights to New York or Florida in the same scheme. This meant for the purchase of a rather inexpensive Hoover, customers could obtain flights worth over £600.

© CBS News

The promotion became much more popular than anticipated, and Hoover were only able to deliver on a fraction of the tickets. After coughing up £50 million for the free flights, while only generating £30 million in sales, Hoover bled out another £7 million to quell the PR damages.


Just like their famous products, Hoover’s marketing team really sucked.

7. Spot The Difference

IKEA has franchises around the world, but some countries’ approaches to the flat-pack megastores are notably different. Critics called out IKEA Saudi Arabia in October 2012 for publishing catalogues which were identical to all their others… except the women were completely removed.

© Jezebel

In general, advertising featuring women is rare in Saudi Arabia, due to cultural standards, and Starbucks even replaced their mermaid logo with a crown in order to thrive there.

© Flickr/Osama Alassiry

But whether politically-correct or not, IKEA, a company formed in Sweden – one of the most progressive countries in the world – was accused of putting business interests before women’s rights. Or maybe women really don’t exist in Saudi Arabia? Surely a catalogue wouldn’t lie, would it?

6. Weapons of Mass Distribution

In much of America, as well as all of Canada, brass knuckles are illegal. Instead, people are generally encouraged to punch each other the old-fashioned way. Electronic Arts must have missed that memo in 2009, when a shipment of press packs for their Godfather 2 video game came under fire for its questionable content. That content, of course, featured shiny sets of brass knuckles.

© Wikimedia Commons & Tom’s Guide

When they realized they’d actually committed a crime by sending these out, EA quickly recalled the knuckles, but not before causing a very public mess and some very outraged mothers. As if soccer moms needed any more reasons to believe ‘videogames cause violence’. Luckily for EA, the famous marketing failure didn’t pack a punch in the form of any lawsuits. But EA had become the ‘Godfather’ of gaming PR disasters.

5. Smooth, With An Explosive Flavor! Failed Marketing Strategies.

Scavenger hunts are good, wholesome fun, right? Well, it turns out that when you keep the “clues” in abandoned briefcases in public places, the authorities tend to take the hunt quite seriously.

In 2014, Coors Light Canada sponsored a scavenger hunt across Toronto called “Search and Rescue.” This fun-in-the-sun themed publicity stunt involved hiding 880 prize-filled briefcases across the city, with clues and maps posted on Twitter each day.

The hunt went smoothly… that is, until a prize briefcase left at an intersection caught the attention of the Bomb Squad. Due to its suspicious nature, the briefcase launched an investigation, halting the evening commute for hundreds of angry people.

© Twitter/Aaron Ries

Coors Light Canada issued a public apology, but many inconvenienced Canadians publicly renounced the brand, determining to seek light refreshment elsewhere in future.

© Twitter/Coors Light Canada

4. Mild Refreshment, Poor Taste

In 1971, Coke rode the free-love political waves by teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony…

Voices came together, drank Coke, and called for a unified Earth. In 2017, Pepsi tried to rehash this principle, marching 21-year-old model Kendall Jenner through crowds of protestors, to symbolically solve all the modern world’s societal issues by… offering police officers a Pepsi.

© Elle

Voices arose in anger immediately after the ad aired. Coming in the wake of Black Lives Matter, the #metoo movement, and calamitous social unrest, nearly everyone was offended that Pepsi, alongside a pretty, rich valley girl famous for… [ahem] could hijack serious social issues in such a tone-deaf way.

Across the world, angry people could not fathom whether Pepsi could really be THAT oblivious, or if they were making people angry on purpose. Ears and inboxes full of outrage, Pepsi pulled the ad and publicly apologized. Meanwhile, the social movements the ad referenced continued, somehow not resolved by Pepsi sales.

Well, it was just one of a couple of big marketing fails by Pepsi.

3. Always Too Soon

In 2016, Texas company Miracle Mattress learned the hard way that deeply offensive humor suits best only in the comics.

Attempting to cash in on a national tragedy, the store owners released an advert, featuring ‘towers’ of twin mattresses stacked in the background. The advert asks: ‘what better way to remember 9/11 than with a TWIN TOWER sale?’. This bold opener is followed by two employees diving into the towers while saying, “Never Forget.”

Instead of boosting sales, these antics put the company out of business almost immediately, despite various public apologies. It was one of those failed marketing strategies that had been proven to be a terrible mistake.

They really should’ve slept on this dumb idea before jumping into bed with it.

2. Failed Marketing Strategies: Pepsi’s Points Panic

In 1996, Pepsi came up with a not-terribly-original, but easy-to-follow loyalty scheme: customers could earn points by buying Pepsi products. Different products had codes worth different point values. After amassing points, people could redeem them for prizes like t-shirts, sunglasses and other random items bearing the Pepsi logo.


One commercial for ‘Pepsi Stuff’, which aired during the Superbowl in 1996, announced that seven million points could be cashed in for a full-blown Harrier Jet, complete with custom Pepsi stylings.

Pepsi rather carelessly assumed that no one would actually want a Harrier Jet, nor bother to collect that many points. But, as you’ve probably guessed, a 21-year-old business student called John Leonard decided to take Pepsi up on their offer.

Since bottles generally earned a single point, he could have just bought 7 million and used those. But that would have cost at least a couple million dollars, and drinking all that pepsi would be sure to turn you diabetic. He discovered that Pepsi Points were on sale for 10 cents each and found this method a cheaper way of acquiring a fighter jet.

Presumably, Leonard had plans to sell the jet, as its worth a few million dollars, though all-out-war with Coca-Cola may have been the endgame. Leonard lined up a handful of investors and sent 15 Pepsi points labels, alongside a cheque for $700,000 for the Harrier Jet, to Pepsi HQ.

Pepsi refused the offer, and the baffled execs had to step up to explain that the ad was a joke. Things escalated to a lawsuit, but fell in Pepsi’s favor, with the court ruling that “no objective person could reasonably have concluded that the commercial actually offered consumers a Harrier Jet.” However, Pepsi learned from this famous marketing failure and changed the commercial so that the jet required 700 million points.

Honorable Mentions

Before the revelation of the biggest blunder, there are a couple facepalm-worthy tales that deserve an honorable mention. Firstly, an outstanding case of “What Were They Thinking”.

© Meme Crunch

I’m talking, of course, about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual reality tour of Puerto Rico following devastating hurricanes in 2017. The gimmick was preceding the announcement of Facebook’s $1.5 million relief effort and work with the Red Cross, but Zuck isn’t exactly known for being a PR guru. During the livestream, Mark’s smiling, laughing virtual icon wandered off to play with his dog. He even high-fived with his cohost, all while real people in the background struggled to survive the flooding and devastation. It seems Mark’s grip on reality is purely virtual these days.

There’s also this ad, found in a Berlin subway station. It grew popular – and controversial – on the internet through its photoshopped English translation.

© Twitter/Melanie Kleiner

This funeral home ad, allegedly the work of avant-garde German ad team Jung Von Matt, jokingly suggests readers help out the business by stepping onto the subway tracks.

© Imgur

Despite its controversial nature, the Bergemann and Sohn funeral home received positive feedback from this ad, which is why it’s only an honorable mention. Still, this one could easily have been a train-wreck.

1. The Cost Of Gluttony

A sure-fire way to fail spectacularly is to underestimate hungry Americans. In 2003, Red Lobster made that very mistake. Then-president of the chain Edna Morris assumed running an all-you-can-eat promotion would be a terrific way to bring new life to the Red Lobster brand. However, of all the inexpensive sea critters, she chose snow crab legs as the promotion’s centre-point.

© Needpix/Stokpic

Unfortunately, in 2003, snow crabs were in short – and expensive – supply, due to over-harvesting in previous years. But – whether unaware of the high price of the usually-cheap crab or spurred on by some kind of deep-rooted hatred of crustaceans – Edna stood firm on Snow Crab. Edna had enjoyed success with all-you-can-eat promotions in a steakhouse chain. But she wrongly assumed that she might transfer the formula from turf to surf.

For a mere $22.99, customers could gorge themselves with crabby goodness. Unfortunately, Edna failed to realize that steak was hugely more filling than crab. The average customer ate two dozen legs per sitting, with many returning for a fourth helping; way more than the anticipated amount-per-customer.


Not only that, but cracking crab legs to eat is time-consuming, meaning customers were hogging tables for hours. Hourly customer capacities suffered badly, and news of the fiasco resulted in a 12% drop in share prices for Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden. Not to mention, the already-high snow crab prices skyrocketed. All in all, the promotion was a total – costly – disaster. Edna, the scourge of snow crabs everywhere, was thrown into the deep blue sea of unemployment, while Red Lobster narrowly avoided sleeping with the fishes.

Is your forehead sore from facepalming at some of these failed marketing strategies? Have you encountered even worse marketing mishaps? Let me know in the comments section below.

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