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Weird and Controversial Marketing Campaigns

There’s something innately fascinating about the weird and wonderful. Whether it spooks and shocks us or it draws us in with anticipation. Doing something different and unconventional has always worked in marketing. In an extremely over-saturated market that sees endless campaigns that show the same formula, there are the few that stand out above the rest. Today, I am going to show you my own personal top 5 most weird and controversial campaigns. The ones that worked effectively and the ones that just really didn’t. 

Let’s start in 2013 in India at Ford, the renowned car retailer. How could such a massive corporation come up with such a dreadful advertising campaign? The ad the company released was two prints. One that depicted a caricature of Paris Hilton as she winks driving a Ford Figo with three of the Kardashian sisters bound in the boot of the automobile. The second ad uses a caricature of Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi doing a peace sign while driving with three scantily clad women, who were bound and gagged. The advert was meant to describe just how much space was in the boot of the Figo in a satirical way. However, critics called the advert misogynistic and in bad taste, especially at a time of #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Ford UK and America quickly stepped in after the uproar to try and diminish the damage and stated that the advert “Should have never happened.” I think what I find unusual and weird about this advert is why that concept? Why so hypersexualized when selling a car?

An interesting example of a marketing campaign that completely contradicts its message is Skittles 2017 “There’s Only One Rainbow that Matters.” where the brand stripped their famous rainbow packaging of all colours and made it black and white. It was done for Pride Month, June, and the message was meant to be that Skittles was allowing the LGBT community to own the rainbow for that month. At its release, there was a lot of controversy over the product. The confectionaries inside were explicitly white, meaning people of colour felt that the product was centered around people of white ethnicity. Some also said they just didn’t like the product and it did not feel the same. However, even after all this, the product still returned in 2020 for Pride Month. Even though the idea is questionable, changing your whole design and formula for a social cause. Also seemingly contradicting the meaning of Pride, which is showing your colour and rainbow. I think the idea is effective in making a statement and being different to the normal. When it comes to Pride Month, there is a lot of rainbow washing that takes place and aggravates the LGBT community during Pride Month. Skittles effectively combats this in an effective and eye-grabbing way. 

It is very unusual for a marketing campaign to end in tragedy. This is what happened in 2007 in Sacramento, California when the KDND radio network hosted a “Hold your wee for a Wii” competition. A competition that had contestants drinking as much water as they could while holding their need to urinate, in the hopes of winning a $250 new Wii game console. The game took place while hosts joked and laughed “Is anyone dying in there?” making the whole ordeal even more morbid. One of the contestants Jennifer Lea Strange, 28, entered the contest. She alongside other contestants vomited. She dropped out of the contest, went home, and died about six hours later. A jury awarded $16,577,188 damages against KDND. This is a marketing campaign that just failed massively. No redeeming feature, and I am also left stumped as to what the idea behind it was. To put, particularly younger people, through pain and denying them natural body functions to win a game console. 

Nivea’s marketing campaign for their sunscreen made headlines when it debuted at Cannes in 2016. The ad featured a seagull drone, stocked up with sunscreen that goes around the beach and poops Nivea’s new kid’s sunscreen onto unsuspecting children. Created by a German agency Jung von Matt/Elbe. With the message of making sure all kids are protected from the sun, even when they refuse to apply sunscreen themselves. What at first didn’t seem like something real in reality was actually an existing and working drone that had been used. Yes, the idea behind a pooping seagull that excrements onto children is disgusting the campaign worked and gained a lot of media impressions. Cannes Lion jury president Sir John Hegarty told journalists, "It’s the most stupid thing I think I’ve seen in my whole life. I actually thought the Monty Python team had gotten together and entered it, to see if we would vote for it." I think this campaign was weirdly effective. It created a buzz, was an out of the box idea, and was comical. I’ve never seen it done before and it tackled a serious issue towards kids in an easier to digest child-friendly manner. 


Lastly, what other revenue markets would a toothpaste brand explore? Skincare? Haircare? Body care?. No. Food! This is almost comedic how dreadful it is. Back in the 80s Colgate, the famous oral hygiene brand created a limited amount of frozen TV food, like lasagne and spaghetti. Of course, the average consumer did not want to buy food from the same company that create their toothpaste. So the products were a massive fail and Colgate pulled them and has been trying to remove their presence off both the internet and people’s minds. I think the major issue with this is why would Colgate not stick to what they know? Trying different paths is only effective when brands can link it back to their original ethos. This is a failure that has now become a beloved internet meme. 

In conclusion, when a brand tries something different and wacky it can be awesome. It can challenge the norm and create a new image and look for a company. However when the new look is overly controversial or not socially conscious, it can end in tragedy. These campaigns, stunts, and products are no longer different and unique and instead can be harmful and can even bring down a brand’s reputation with its customers.