Some of the best ads in marketing history have run during the Super Bowl. But what a lot of people forget is there have been some real clunkers as well.
We’re not talking about ads that underwhelm or are instantly forgettable. In many cases, companies have spent millions of dollars to air ads that are borderline (if not blatantly) offensive and do nothing to improve their company’s sales or reputation.
While the intent of these ads might have been to make people laugh or create a pop culture moment, things went a lot different than planned. It’s a subjective list, granted, but in many cases, there was a backlash following the ads that the companies almost certainly didn’t anticipate.
Go Daddy (GDDY), “Exposure” (2008) – Frankly, you could pick pretty much any of GoDaddy’s ads for the Big Game for this list. The company had regularly used sex in the most blatant way to turn heads, ignoring the fact that the commercials often went beyond sexy to sexist – including former spokesperson and Nascar driver Danica Patrick stripping down, Patrick and Jillian Michaels applying body paint to a nude model or Bar Refaeli in an extended, loud sloppy make out session with a nerdy character actor. The biggest question is why women like Patrick and Michaels would associate themselves with the spots.
The Fallout: After the company’s 2015 IPO, it adjusted its Super Bowl ad strategy away from cleavage and jiggle. Unfortunately, it caused another uproar when consumers were outraged it appeared to be endorsing puppy farms and pulled the ad.
Bud Light (BUD), “Upside Down Clown” (2003) – Clowns are pretty scary to start with. But this ad took them to a whole new level when a ‘handstand clown’ slips out of a parade and into a bar for a quick pick-me-up. While the gag’s apparent and nothing explicit is shown, it still wasn’t something you wanted to explain to your kid as you watched the game. And the thought of a clown drinking a beer through its buttocks doesn’t exactly make us thirsty.
The Fallout: There wasn’t much. Bud came back the next year with an ad centered on horse flatulence.
General Motors (GM), “Suicidal Robot” (2007) – Depending on who you’re rooting for in the game, the Super Bowl can be stressful and depressing enough. That’s why funny commercials tend to do so well. That’s also why watching an anthropomorphic assembly line robot getting fired for making a small mistake and ultimately becoming so despondent that it takes its own life makes for a really, really bad commercial.
The Fallout: After complaints from suicide prevention advocacy groups, GM agreed to edit the ad five days after it aired, removing the segment where the robot throws itself off of a bridge.
Groupon (GRPN), “Tibet” (2011) – This ad fails on two levels. It starts off with Timothy Hutton seemingly making a sincere plea for the plight of the Tibetan people. Not exactly a topic that goes over well with a Super Bowl audience. Then it manages to get worse when it turns into nothing more than a sales pitch for Groupon that marginalizes the culture of the country.
The Fallout: Groupon apologized and pulled the campaign a few days after it aired
SalesGenie, “Pandas” (2008) – If you’re going to pitch your service, it’s generally better to do so without resorting to racial stereotypes. This baffling ad was full of mocking Chinese accents that bordered on racist. Just because it’s a cartoon doesn’t make it funny – or right.
The Fallout: Senior officials at the company said they were baffled by the firestorm of criticism they received. Chairman and CEO Vinod Gupta (who reportedly wrote the ad himself) told the New York Times “We never thought anyone would be offended. … The pandas are Chinese. They don’t speak German.” The company ultimately apologized and stopped running the commercial.
Lifeminders.com, “Self Titled” (2000) – The height of dot-com arrogance, this ad proudly proclaimed itself to be the worst Super Bowl commercial. Advertising a company that sent “highly personalized e-mails on topics you ask for. Free”, it was rumored to be slapped together in just three days. It showed.
The Fallout: The company was out of business within two years.
Apple (AAPL), “Lemmings” (1985) – Apple’s “1984” is arguably the greatest Super Bowl ad of all time – and the reason the game became an advertising showcase. But most people forget the dreary follow-up from 1985, which shows office workers marching to their death over a cliff. It’s one of the few times Apple has cleanly missed in its advertising.
The Fallout: The ad didn’t hurt the company, but Apple didn’t advertise during the Super Bowl again until 1999.
Dirt Devil, “Dirt Devil Dance” (1997) – Fred Astaire had been dead for nearly 10 years when Dirt Devil made him an integral part of this CGI-intense ad, transforming one of his better known dance numbers into the much loved performer ‘dancing’ with a vacuum cleaner.
The Fallout: Made with the blessing of his widow, but over the objection of other family members, the ad initially was seen as a technological marvel, but fans quickly turned on the company, which quietly dropped the campaign.
Nationwide, “Make Safe Happen” (2015) – Death just doesn’t resonate during the Super Bowl, but companies always seem to forget that. Last year, the insurance giant bummed a nation out by having a boy list all the things he would never do, because, as he explained at the end of the spot, he was dead.
The Fallout: Nationwide had hoped the ad would convey a serious message about child safety. Instead, it had such an abrupt, jarring conclusion to the narrative that people quickly mocked it, transforming it into a widely spread meme.
Just For Feet, “Kenyan Runner” (1999) – It’s rare that a bad commercial will kill a company, but Just For Feet, an athletic shoe retailer, didn’t last too long after this. The ad – in which four white men in a Humvee seek, track, then drug a Kenyan runner in order to put tennis shoes on him – was quickly labeled “racist” by viewers
The Fallout: Just For Feet sued its ad agency for $10 million over the ad, but that suit was quickly dropped. Ten months later, Just for Feet filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A little more than a year after he commercial ran, the company was sold to Footstar Inc.
The ad has been scrubbed from YouTube, but you can still see it over on Adland.TV.