U.S. marketers spent more than $10 billion on content marketing in 2016, according to Forrester Research. Global marketing spend is estimated at $40 billion.

In an effort to stand out, some companies take chances that generate public backlash instead of customer interest. Marketing failures can lead to negative attention as well as lost sales.

Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Political Protest Ad

Pepsi was accused of appropriating imagery from protests and the Black Lives Matter movement to sell its product in an ad featuring Kendall Jenner in 2017, according to The New York Times.

In the ad, a police officer grinned as he accepted a can of Pepsi from Jenner and protesters cheered. The ad also showed an image of Ieshia Evans, who was arrested by police officers during a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the aftermath of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Social media uproar forced Pepsi to remove the ad immediately and apologize. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize,” the company said in a statement. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”

Dove’s Body-Shaped Packaging

“Dove has worked hard to connect its brand image to social ideals,” according to The Atlantic. “Thanks to a decade of ‘Real Beauty’ campaigns, the personal-care products company has successfully associated itself with the goal of positive body image. In one campaign, billboard ads depict ordinary women instead of professional models. Another shows the process of Photoshopping a pretty but imperfect woman into the impossible ideal typically shown in marketing images.”

Dove may have undermined its brand image in 2017 when releasing “Real Beauty Bottles,” which feature six different shapes of body-wash bottles that correspond to different body types, including an hourglass and pear-shaped bottles.

Criticisms include how this campaign implies there is a perfect body type after all. “It’s straight-up off-brand,” Samantha Skey, president of digital media company She Knows Media, told The Washington Post. “It’s a change in tone for Dove, from ads that are almost painfully sincere and earnest, to something that could literally be a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit. Unless you’re trying to mock everything you stand for, I’m not sure why you would do this.”

Despite the controversy, 82 percent of people still had a favorable view of Dove.


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Uber’s Response to Political Protest

In January 2017, taxi drivers in New York gathered for a strike in response to President Donald Trump’s immigration ban, asking all drivers, including Uber and Lyft, to join the protest. Instead, Uber promoted itself and suspended “surge” pricing. Many saw this as Uber undermining the strike.

Users protested Uber’s response, starting the #DeleteUber campaign on social media. Lyft announced a $1 million donation to the American Civil Liberties Union. Within days, Lyft surpassed Uber downloads in iOS in the United States for the first time ever, likely as a direct result of Uber’s actions.

Sony’s “White is Coming” Ad

Sony released a 2006 billboard ad in the Netherlands to market its all-white PlayStation Portable system to replace the original black version. In the ad, a white woman aggressively grasps the face of a black model, which prompted immediate reactions of the ad having racist connotations. Sony tried defending the ad, saying that it was designed to show the contrast in colors of the gaming system.

Amazon’s Nazi-Themed Subway Cars

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked the Metro Transportation Authority (MTA) to remove Nazi-themed subway ads in 2015 for an Amazon show, The Man in the High Castle. The ads featured Nazi eagles and a variation on the Japanese rising sun. “While these ads technically may be within MTA guidelines, they’re irresponsible and offensive to World War II and Holocaust survivors, their families, and countless other New Yorkers,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

Amazon defended the ads and told NPR that the company did not ask MTA to pull the ads: “Amazon Studios creates high-quality, provocative programming that spurs conversation. The Man in the High Castle, based on an acclaimed novel, explores the impact to our freedoms if we had lost World War II. Like Transparent and the movie Chi-Raq, stories that society cares about often touch on important, thought-provoking topics. We will continue to bring this kind of storytelling to our customers.”

How to Learn From Mistakes

Recovering from marketing mistakes involves apologizing promptly and to the right people, according to the Nature Research blog. It also pays to wait a few days to observe how the audience responds. An official statement issued a few days after the initial apology can cover and demonstrate sensitivity to what audiences have pointed out.

Of course, prevention is the most important step. If there is some uncertainty about a message or campaign idea, one of the simplest things to do is to ask a coworker whether it’s appropriate. And having awareness of best practices will go a long way in preventing marketing failures or simple mistakes that can undermine a campaign’s ability to be successful.

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