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PR ASSESSMENT

The Top 5 Most Controversial Ad Campaigns In Recent Years

Have you ever watched or seen an advertisement and been left angry, confused or, even, scared? 

You’re not alone. 

IT Chapter Two hit American theaters on September 5. The first-installment is listed as the highest-grossing horror film of all time and the sequel may surpass that. 

However, the advertising campaign for the Stephen King inspired blockbuster hasn’t gone down well with some. 

In fact, parents in Australia have made complaints to the advertising standards body about the promotional billboard posters for the forthcoming film. They claim that the image of Pennywise the clown are causing their children to have nightmares:

it clown face

Advertising is always trying to get an emotional reaction from its audience. Sometimes they can massively drop the ball or cause a division in opinions. Killer clowns are no different. 

With this in mind, we’ve compiled the top 5 most controversial advertisements in recent years:

Pepsi: ‘Live For Now’ (2017)

This may be one of the biggest, high-profile advertising flops of recent years. In fact, Pepsi pulled this advert from circulation less than 24 hours after its release.

Pepsi is no stranger to spending big on advertisements and using famous faces. A few names include: Lionel Messi, Beyonce, Pink, and David Beckham. This time it used the celebrity fashion icon, Kendell Jenner. 

The advert depicts a protest against…well, that is unclear. Jenner approaches the police and hands an officer a can of Pepsi, effectively ending the protest. 

Fast forward to 2019 and this advert seems more than a bit confusing. However, it was released while the #BlackLivesMatter campaign was in motion. Protests and marches were taking place throughout the States. The advert seemingly took inspiration from these protests. Furthermore, the imagery of a soft drink saving the day did not sit well with people. After a backlash online, Pepsi was forced into releasing an official apology and pulled the ad. 

Nike: ‘Colin Kaepernick’ (2018)

Consumers increasingly like companies who take a stand on political or social issues. This is kind of what Pepsi was trying to do while saying very little. Nike very much chose a side with its ad campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of its marketing slogan ‘Just Do It’.

Nike chose to run a series of advertisements about sports stars who have overcome adversity to become among the best in their fields. This featured the likes of Serena Williams and LeBron James. However, they also took the divisive decision to use Colin Kaepernick as the narrator. The former San Francisco 49er’s quarterback sparked national debate in 2016 by kneeling during the national anthem in a protest against racial inequality in the US. 

While many applauded his decision, a lot of NFL and sports fans considered it unpatriotic and the decision polarized some of Nike’s customers. Following this ad, social media erupted with hashtags of #JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike. However, despite a dip in its share price on the day of the ad’s release, Nike reported a 31% increase in sales the following Labor Day. 

Benetton Group: ‘Unhate Campaign’ (2011)

The Benetton Group is no stranger to controversial adverts. In fact, the Italian fashion company came under fire beforehand for a campaign that featured a priest and a nun kissing

However, this 2011 ad campaign, in my opinion, is the most visually striking on this list:

benneton unhate campaign

The campaign featured a range of former and current world leaders kissing. The company behind the ad said the theme focused on the kiss as the universal symbol of love.

The controversy surrounding this ad campaign arose in many different ways. Firstly, world leaders were used without their consent. Moreover, one of the ads featured Pope Benedict XVI kissing a prominent Egyptian imam. This was quickly removed after complaints from the Vatican. 

However, despite the fierce backlash, Benetton never apologized or withdraw the ad and even went on to win an award at the Cannes ad festival.

McDonald’s: ‘Filet O’ Fish’ (2017)

McDonald’s received a huge backlash for this UK advertisement a couple of years back. Many viewers believed that the fast-food restaurant was using childhood bereavement to help them sell burgers. 

The UK Advertising Standards Agency received over 100 complaints from the advert, with many viewers referencing the close proximity to father’s day.

They also came under fire from Dr. Shelley Gilbert, president of the children’s bereavement charity Grief Encounter. She said, “we have already received countless phone calls this morning, with parents telling us their bereaved children have been upset by the advert and alienated by McDonald’s as a brand that wants to emotionally manipulate its customers.”

The ad was investigated by the ASA, but no further action was taken.

Gillette: ‘We Believe’ (2019)

This year, Gillette took a 180-degree turn in its advertising. The grooming company’s previous tagline was, ‘the best a man can get’. The ‘We Believe’ ad signaled a new direction. 

This advert served as Gillette’s response to the #MeToo movement. It focuses on toxic masculinity and the damaging impact of machismo attitudes and phrases such as, ‘boys will be boys’. 

This came under fire on social media with some men unhappy with the portrayal of the 21st-century man. Furthermore, feminist groups criticized and questioned Gillette’s commitment to the #MeToo campaign, since the female grooming products cost more than male equivalents. 

Gillette’s sudden change in brand messaging and tone may have seen to have come of the left field. However, some believe it to be a response to grooming product startups who’ve recently entered the market and have a more progressive image. These include Dollar Shaving Club – who’s latest ad campaign features drag queens – and Harrys – who released an ad with English soccer player Harry Kane stating he’s ‘not afraid’ to go against traditional male stereotypes. 

With more content and advertisements floating around in our everyday lives, advertisers will be constantly trying to turn heads in new and creative ways. This means that ads will continue to take more risks and continually get more controversial. So there may be some campaigns just around the corner that’ll be scarier than fictional killer clowns. 

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