By the time you see an ad from a retailer, restaurant, or consumer brand, it has been looked over and picked at by countless people at an ad agency and the company’s internal marketing team. The same goes for a piece of merchandise. Products can’t escape the scrutiny of a big team of buyers, merchandisers, and, of course, store workers.
So it’s baffling how often major companies trying to be hip or funny put out an ad or sell a product only to find out it is offensive to countless prospective customers. This past year has been chock full of cringe-worthy gaffes by retailers and restaurants that had them scrambling to apologize and contain the PR damage. Some of them seemed to make light of the Holocaust, while others were interpreted as encouraging rape.
Here is a look back at some of the big marketing and merchandising misfires by top retailers in 2015, in no particular order.
Let these disasters serve as lessons as big brands head into 2016.
1 Walmart bakes an ISIS cake
A Walmart (WMT) worker in Slidell, La., in June baked a cake with the ISIS flag on it, amazingly unaware it was the banner of the murderous extremist group that has taken over large swathes of Syria and Iraq. Turns out the cake was linked to another controversy surrounding Walmart last summer: its decision to stop selling any merchandise with the Confederate flag on it. The Walmart customer in Slidell was angry when the store rejected his request for a cake with the Confederate flag, so he tested the retailer by requesting one with the ISIS cake. The retailer later apologized for the ISIS cake.
2 Nordstrom sells Hanukkah sweater, quickly pulls it
Nordstrom landed in hot water with customers in November over a piece of clothing intended to be humorous but instead offended some shoppers. The upscale department store was selling Faux Real’s ‘Chai Maintenance’ Hanukkah sweater. The product angered some customers, who saw it as playing on clichés about Jewish women and promptly took to Facebook to complain. The luxury store quickly pulled the item from its racks.
3 Urban Outfitters sells tapestry that invokes Holocaust
Urban Outfitters angered many shoppers when it sold a tapestry earlier this year that looked like the uniform that gay prisoners wore in Nazi concentration camps. It was not the first time the fashion retailer got in trouble for selling items reminiscent of the Holocaust: three years earlier, Urban Outfitters was selling a yellow t-shirt with a star on it, the Huffington Post reported in February.
4 Bloomingdale's ad that hinted at date rape
Bloomingdale’s, the luxury department store owned by Macy’s (M), had to apologize for a catalog ad in November that many in social media forums saw as encouraging date rape. In the ad, for Rebecca Minkoff merchandise, a man is seen staring at a beautiful woman who is looking in the opposite direction and includes the caption, “Spike Your Best Friend’s Egg Nog When They’re Not Looking.”
5 Target's OCD sweater
The discount retailer landed on this ignominious list by selling a red Christmas sweater bearing the slogan “OCD: Obsessive Christmas Disorder.” Many on social media took offense saying it made light of obsessive compulsive disorder. But Target held fast and continued to sell the piece.
6 Starbucks' "Race Together" campaign
The coffee giant had good intentions in March when it launched a short-lived campaign encouraging customers to engage in discussions about race relations with baristas. The move earned Starbucks (SBUX) some ridicule and brickbats, with many people feeling it's too hot an issue to address in this manner. Starbucks dropped the campaign after six days.
7 Under Armour under fire for Iwo Jima t-shirt
The athletic apparel maker was roundly criticized in May for a t-shirt that harkened to a key World War II battle in which thousands of Marines were killed. The Under Armour t-shirt depicted basketball players raising a hoop in a very similar way in which Marines lifted a U.S. flag during the battle of Iwo Jima, as memorialized in an iconic photograph. Under Armour promptly apologized for the item.
8 McDonald's runs ads invoking 9/11 and Boston bombings
Seeking to insert some gravitas to its ads, McDonald's (MCD) in January launched a campaign that featured messages on McDonald's billboards across the U.S. over the decades. The messages varied from birth announcements to "We Remember 9/11" to "Boston Strong," all with the burger chain's trademark golden arches above them. Many objected to the campaign, accusing McDonald's of trying to capitalize on tragedy. The company said it was trying to have "deeper" conversations with customers.
9 Bud Light accused of encouraging date rape
Anheuser-Busch (BUD) created a social media firestorm when it slapped the tagline "The perfect beer for removing 'no' from your vocabulary for the night #UpForWhatever" on the labels of many Bud Light bottles. The blowback was swift, with countless people accusing the company of promoting rape culture. The company later admitted that the tagline "missed the mark."