Six of the biggest marketing fails of 2018

Anna Roberts & Phil Kendall

Dec 2018 ⋅ 9 min read

Man with glasses cringing while looking at the camera.

It's been a great year for marketing and social media creativity in general. We've been blessed with some genuinely evocative, amusing, and eye-opening campaigns that have both increased awareness around their respective brands and inspired us to take our own marketing to the next level in the coming year.

Sadly, however, 2018 has also given us some real stinkers.

That's why, in this blog post, Anna and I will be carrying out a few postmortems of sorts, highlighting the most misjudged, offensive, and cringeworthy marketing campaigns of the year, as well as discussing what we can learn from them.

Take a deep breath and let's dive in!

Anna's top picks

#1: Mastercard's World Cup campaign

The FIFA World Cup always presents plenty of marketing opportunities to brands big and small, regardless of whether they're official sponsors of the tournament. We saw some truly terrible marketing efforts this time around — who could forget Burger King Russia's offer for a cash prize and a lifetime supply of Whoppers if you were impregnated by a World Cup footballer?

While the Burger King campaign was clearly designed to whip up controversy, Mastercard's World Cup marketing fail was unintentional.

On their Latin America and Caribbean Twitter account, Mastercard announced they would be donating meals to children. That sounds great. The problem? They would tie these donations to the number of goals scored by Messi or Neymar Jr during the World Cup.

Resting the fate of starving children on whether a multimillionaire scores a penalty is horrific. And Twitter responded with "Why not donate the meals anyway?"

Mastercard dropped the campaign and instead donated more than two million meals across 2018.

The lesson: Giving to charity doesn't automatically give you good publicity — get the tone wrong and your charitable efforts could work against you. Try to work with a charity that has a connection with your brand, so your endeavours feel genuine.

#2: Lush's #spycop campaign

At the end of May, Lush started a campaign to highlight the 'spy cops' scandal — undercover police that 'spied' on activist groups and entered relationships with these activists as part of their work.  

While this might sound like a reasonable basis for a campaign, the company used rather provocative language and imagery that many people interpreted as an attack on police as a whole.

There was a social media backlash that extended to the national press, and calls for a boycott: #FlushLush.  Their Facebook page was review-bombed with 1-star ratings. Politicians waded in.

It all looked grim for Lush. At the time of the campaign, #SpyCop was definitely a marketing fail. They even had to shelve the campaign due to staff safety.

But then the backlash to the backlash began. People spoke out in support of Lush, including politicians on the left and ex-wives of undercover cops. The company quietly restarted the campaign.

Overall, during the campaign period, sales increased by 14% against the same timeframe in 2017.

Experts think that this was down to the messaging being a hit with Lush's politically active followers, who use the brand for their ethical and political beliefs. Lush alienated another potential market but strengthened their core brand.

Time will tell whether Lush's campaign was a marketing fail or a moderate success — if this campaign lingers in the memory of those who had such a negative reaction, it could harm Lush in the long term.  

The lesson: If you want to take a political stand with an advertising campaign, think carefully about who you might offend — and if it's worth the risk. Consider how you'll handle the negative publicity, and have a plan in place for shutting down the campaign if the backlash becomes overwhelming.

#3: Virgin Media's response to UKTV dispute

In July, Virgin Media announced that UKTV channels (including Gold and Dave) would no longer be available to their customers. Of course, there would be no discount for affected customers, despite losing 10 channels.

The loss of channels was down to a pricing dispute between Virgin and UKTV. UKTV claimed Virgin wanted to significantly cut their payments to UKTV, and Virgin claimed that they merely wanted a deal that reflected that UKTV's channels were already available to view for free, online. Four million customers were affected.

Virgin Media faced the bulk of customer anger — after all, customers were still having to pay them for reduced service.

Unfortunately, Virgin Media also made the whole incident worse for themselves with their response.

They asked their customers to pressure UKTV into backing down — but why should Virgin's paying customers be required to do this in order to receive channels they'd already paid for?

On the other side of the argument, UKTV took a much more direct, personal approach. They published video statements from one of their top senior managers clearly explaining why their channels weren't available. And crucially, they apologised.

UKTV deftly outmanoeuvred Virgin Media, and no doubt all the backlash over the channels' removal helped UKTV when it came to renegotiating their deal with Virgin.

The lesson: Unless your customers love your brand, don't expect them to fight your corner in a dispute. Instead, apologise to customers and explain clearly why the dispute has occurred and what you're doing to resolve it.

Phil's top picks

#1 Domino's Pizza Russia's tattoo promo

In September, Domino's Pizza in Russia launched a poorly judged promotion wherein 350 fans of the pizza chain were given the chance to win free Domino's pizza for the next 100 years.

All they had to do was permanently tattoo themselves with the Domino's logo on a "visible" area of their body, such as lower leg, hand, arm, neck, and even face...

Присядьте, пожалуйста) Новость может шокировать! Если ты любишь фан, веселье, экстрим, азарт… 😜😜😜 Если любишь удивлять...

Geplaatst door Domino's Pizza Россия - Доставка 30 минут op Vrijdag 31 augustus 2018

Incredibly, people actually took Domino's up on the offer, proudly posting images of their new ink on social media for the world to see. Their response was so quick, in fact, that the Russian arm of Domino's had to announce just days later that they were no longer accepting submissions, and urged anyone who had made an appointment with a tattoo artist for the purposes of entering to cancel it.

From a marketing perspective, Domino's stunt was undoubtedly a big success. People all over the world were talking about the bizarre promotion, and Domino's was trending on social media.

View this post on Instagram

#доминоснавсегда #dominosforever

A post shared by buhai_ne_univai (@buhai_ne_univai) on

On the flip-side, however, the campaign heavily criticised by many. People felt that Domino's had crossed the line by asking people to permanently tattoo themselves with the brand's logo — not to mention how unfair it was to those who had gone to the trouble of tattooing themselves, only to learn that the 350-person cap had already been reached.  

The lesson: There's nothing wrong with asking your fans to be ambassadors for your brand. But there's a big difference between tapping into customers' enthusiasm and exploiting them, especially when the action you're asking them to take can't be undone (at least, not without expensive surgery!).  

#2: That 'Handmaid's Tale'-inspired lingerie

Making your brand a part of a trending topic or conversation is a common tactic employed by marketers in order to help associate their brand with something that people feel passionately about.  

But when American sleepwear company Lunya decided to hop on the hype train surrounding HBO's hugely popular TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, it's fair to say that they misjudged it a bit.

In a misjudged attempt to appeal to fans of the series, Lunya announced in April that it was launching a red silk number called "the Offred", after Elisabeth Moss' character in the book and show.

The problem? The Handmaid's Tale and sexy sleepwear don't exactly go together. In fact, the idea that someone at Lunya thought it a good idea to try to associate their sexy nightwear with a series in which women are enslaved and forced to bear children, is nothing short of astounding.      

Then there's the fact that the outfit is named 'the Offred', purportedly in 'solidarity' with the story's protagonist.

In The Handmaid's Tale's dystopian world, women are given the names of the men whom they are forced to serve, with Elisabeth Moss' character (whose real name is June) belonging to the house 'of Fred'.

Naturally, fans of the series responded angrily to the ham-fisted tie-in, taking to social media to ask how Lunya could be so bafflingly insensitive. Media outlets, too, caught hold of the story, netting Lunya a great deal of traffic, certainly, but all for the wrong reasons.

The lesson: Think long and hard about the conversations you want your brand to be a part of. Just because a subject is trending online doesn't mean that you should try to associate your business with it.

#3: The tone-deaf Diablo Immortal reveal

Good marketing takes context into account. Ads that succeed in one setting fail in others.

This marketing fail showed the consequences of misreading or ignoring context.

Every year, one of the biggest video game developers in the world, Blizzard Entertainment, hosts its annual convention — Blizzcon. For fans of Blizzard games, Blizzcon is the highlight of the calendar year, with tens of thousands of fans making the trip to California to attend developer panels, meet fellow fans, and get a sneak peek at future Blizzard games. Blizzcon is a celebration of all things Blizzard.

The opening address, where all the biggest announcements are made, is livestreamed to 100,000s of fans around the world on platforms like Twitch.

This year, the announcements were a little thin on the ground. But there was one final announcement to come — and it was for Diablo, one of the most beloved PC gaming franchises of all time.

The problem? The announcement was for Diablo Immortal, a mobile game — crucially, not a fully-fledged PC game.

There was disappointment in the room, and anger online. A panel covering Diablo saw fans ask the developers brutal questions about the mobile game, including: 'Is this an out of season April Fools' joke?'.

One dev responded to an angry fan with 'do you guys not have phones?', which added further fuel to the fire. Fans on Reddit and elsewhere found that the mobile game looked to be a near-copy of another mobile game the company had previously made. And there was concern that the game would be a cash grab, with the loot boxes and microtransactions that tend to plague mobile games.

In other words, it was everything that Blizzard's PC-oriented fanbase didn't want. And Blizzard gave this announcement pride of place in their product showcase.

If they wanted to avoid all this negative publicity, it wouldn't have been difficult. For example, they could have:

  • Briefly mentioned they'd been working on a mobile game, and invited fans to look for more info online
  • Announced the game prior to Blizzcon, or at one of the panels
  • Followed the mobile game announcement with another, more anticipated announcement

Any of these responses would have avoided the outcry after the event. Of course, gamers overreacted to the news, but the announcement represented everything hardcode Blizzard fans feel is wrong with the gaming industry.

The lesson: Always think about the context of your announcements, adverts, and other marketing activities — and if you're announcing something polarising, try to accompany it with some better news.  

Final thoughts

Social media tends to amplify the success or failure of marketing campaigns. These mix-ups might not have been such huge fails five or ten years ago, but today, there's nowhere to hide!

As consumers, we tend to have short memories. Most of us won't recall Mastercard's marketing mix-up by this time next year, and Blizzard fans won't abandon the company over a mobile game. But in business, short-term impacts are keenly felt — in big business, investors won't be happy, and for SMEs, cash flow could become an issue. It's important to understand why marketing campaigns fail, so that your business doesn't make the same mistakes.

What were your most memorable marketing moments of 2018? Comment below!