Companies spend fortunes on advertising, promotions, and commercials. They do studies and surveys, carefully choose target markets and hire professional copywriters and musicians. When completed, these are analyzed once again, tweaks made and further reviewed by fact groups. Nevertheless, despite all the talent, hard work, and expenditures, some of them are ridiculous, offensive, or have mind-boggling blunders. Following are a few of the many that fall into these categories.

Two years ago, an ad for Dove soap not only failed to spur sales but also generated a huge backlash. In the ad, an African American woman, trying to sell body wash, is shown removing her T-shirt. She uses the body wash and is quickly transformed into a white woman. Many people objected to the apparent implications – that people with dark skin are dirty and that Dove body wash is so good that it could remove that dirt, changing someone black into someone white.

Dove apologized, saying that “they missed the mark.” They never explained, however, what “mark” they were trying to hit.

Fantastic Flights

Hoover has a reputation for making quality vacuum cleaners, but an ad the company ran in 1992 had such a bad gaffe that it nearly bankrupted the company.

The problem began when Hoover’s inventory of aging vacuums in the UK reached a humongous level. The company decided to get rid of those quickly, rather than have the problem drag on, and decided the best way of doing that was with an incredible promotion: UK consumers would get two free plane tickets to the US with every 100 pounds ($135) they spent on Hoover products.

Usually anything that sounds too good to be true isn’t, but this was an exception. Hoover’s vacuum cleaners began flying off the shelves and therein lay the problem, because the math was insane. Updated for inflation, every $236 the company generated in sales meant it would have to spend $1,500 in airfare. In effect, Hoover was losing more than $1,250 every time someone purchased one of its vacuums.

Tens of thousands of people in the UK got these round-trip tickets to the US, and in no time, Hoover was over 50 million pounds – some $68 million – in the red. In today’s money, that comes out to about $120 million. The loss proved too much for Hoover to “sweep under the rug,” and the company was forced to sell its British division, bringing a painful end to one of the costliest promotions ever offered.

How anyone could come up with such a money-losing idea is truly baffling; how Hoover approved it, and how no one realized the terrible losses being generated after this campaign was launched is an even bigger mystery. Although this fiasco happened 27 years ago, the company has never fully recovered from those losses.

How To Spell S-H-O-C-K

A well-known cereal company had what it believed was the perfect ad: place a card with one letter of the alphabet in every box of its cereal; anyone who could spell his or her last name with the alphabet cards would win a large cash prize.

At first glance winning seemed easy; all consumers had to do is keep buying boxes of cereal until they had all of the necessary letters. But the company was not crazy. The ad would generate a big increase in sales, and as for paying all those cash prizes – well, that wouldn’t be a problem because the company wasn’t going to print any alphabet cards with vowels. Try spelling any name without at least one vowel.

Everything looked great on paper, but in real life the company overlooked one thing. There’s a popular name in the Asian community often spelled “NG” – with no vowels.

People named “NG” bought as many boxes as they needed to spell their last name and then lined up to collect their prizes. The company was soon swamped with claims, and by the time they realized their error they were in the red for tens of millions of dollars. Having no financial alternative, they balked at paying the prizes. Ultimately, a costly settlement was reached with the prize winners, but the bad publicity was even most expensive.

Pepsi had a different yet somewhat related experience with a lottery it ran in the Philippines in 1993. A consumer who found the winning code under a bottle cap would win $40,000. The idea was simple enough and created some excitement, but there was just one problem: Pepsi announced the wrong winning code, and rather than selling just one winning bottle cap, there were 800,000 winning bottle caps. And at $40,000 each, Pepsi was in the red for $32 billion. Pepsi refused to pay. Rather than generating good will toward the company, the ad made people understandably angry. By paying just a little more attention to their own ad Pepsi could have avoided all of these problems.

I Dare You

The CEO of LifeLock, an identity protection company, had a tremendous amount of confidence in his company’s products. Unfortunately, he had too much.

He advertised his Social Security number, practically daring anyone to rip him off. An accompanying ad read in part: “LifeLock will make your personal information useless to a criminal. And it’s GUARANTEED. Here at LifeLock we Guarantee Your Good Name. No one else does because no one else can.”

It’s easy to guess what happened after that. The CEO’s identity was stolen numerous times. Moreover, the ad turned into a blotch on LifeLock’s reputation. Daring the public in any such effort is a mistake because there are a lot of capable people out there all too willing to step up to a challenge. Sadly, LifeLock learned this lesson the hard way.

In 2007, Dr. Pepper ran an ad for a treasure hunt worth $10,000 in Boston. Contestants were required to find a gold coin that was hidden in Granary Burying Ground, a 17th-century cemetery that is the resting place of John Hancock, Paul Revere, and other well-known personalities of that era.

The ad generated a lot of interest, but some contestants got a counterproductive idea: bring shovels, picks, and other tools to dig up 350-year-old graves and search for the coin.

When city officials in Boston learned about this they were incensed, and demanded the contest be canceled.

Print Ads Flop Too

A print ad for Sparks Steakhouse repeated the company’s name three times in a three-line ad – a bit repetitive by most people’s standards – also made grammatical errors, and failed to capitalize the name of their city and also misspelled the name.

Even worse was a billboard ad for JCPenney; this one showed a character with an unmistakable resemblance to Hitler, yimach sh’mo. An ad for an unknown booze delivery service read as follows: “Are you alcoholic? We can help.” It then listed its telephone number for liquor home delivery. While humor is always appreciated, the attempt to make light out of substance abuse smacks of bad taste and poor judgment.

Starbucks also had a strange print ad in 2002. This one showed two large cups of Starbucks drinks, towering above blades of grass shaped like buildings, and a dragonfly heading straight for them. The caption on the ad read: “Collapse Into Cool.”

The reference to 9/11 – was it a coincidence? Was it intended to be humorous? Whatever the answers to these questions, many were shocked at the ad’s lack of sensitivity just one year after the terror attacks.

Making an effective ad is not as simple as it looks. Some companies learn that the hard way.


Gerald Harris is a financial and feature writer. Gerald can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.