5 brands guilty of insensitive (and just plain wacky) marketing

Campaigns run amok: Talking lady parts, a makeup campaign about murder and death, “civilizing” the afro hairstyle, and more.


Plenty of marketing campaigns launch without the benefit of market research. Often, they work out just fine—there are, after all, loads of marketing experts developing savvy programs and using creative tactics.

However, sometimes those best laid plans can run horribly amuck. And those of us in the research business (and elsewhere) are left scratching our heads. Really? No one gave this idea a second thought?

Research insights can provide tremendous value—across innovation, product development, customer experience, and brand voice and positioning. Unfortunately for these five brands, the insights team was likely left out of the equation as these campaigns were drafted.

MAC’s Rodarte campaign

Makeup company MAC teamed up with fashion line Rodarte for its “Juarez-inspired” collection. The Mexican border town of Juarez—once named the most dangerous city in the world—has been plagued by hundreds of unsolved murders of young female factory workers.

The proposed makeup line, which included product names “factory,” “ghost town,” and “Juarez,” along with models bearing a disturbing resemblance to corpses, incited public outcry about the brand’s insensitivity.

Consequence: The campaign sparked a backlash from angry bloggers and fans, prompting the company to release a public apology, pull the entire line, and donate all of the projected global profits (nearly $100,000) from the line to organizations aimed at supporting the women and girls of Juarez.

Urban Outfitter’s Navajo underwear fiasco.

Hipster clothing mecca, Urban Outfitters, recently stirred up controversy with the release of several Native American-inspired items that boasted the Navajo name. These items, including the “Navajo Hipster Panty” and “Navajo Socks,” caught the attention, and subsequent protest, of the Navajo Nation, which had trademarked the its name.

Consequence: The Navajo items in question caused public outcry over cultural insensitivity and even brought about legal action. According to federal law, it is illegal to falsely claim that a product is Native American-produced when it is not. In response, Urban Outfitters pulled the products from all U.S. stores.

Nivea’s “uncivilized” ad campaign

Nivea faced controversy when it released an ad for shaving cream that implied afros ought to be fashioned and “re-civilized” into a more clean-cut look. The move sparked cries of racial stereotyping and insensitivity.

Consequence: Nivea released a public apology and pulled the offending ad from future publications, vowing that it “will never run again.” The damage to the brand’s public image, however—expressed in various responses to Nivea’s apology—might prove far more difficult for the company to rectify.

Summer’s Eve ethically insensitive ads

Feminine hygiene company Summer’s Eve provoked a bevy of criticism for its “Hail to the V” campaign, which featured talking female genitalia (you read that right) and serious racial stereotypes to boot.

Consequence: Criticism for the strange ad campaign—which featured a talking hand impersonating female genitalia with racial voiceovers—incited charges of racism, sexism, and borderline obscenity. In response to the backlash, Summer’s Eve pulled the campaign, saying its intention was not to offend, but to empower. The executive PR director of the Richards Group said, “There seems to be an important perception out there that [the videos] may be [stereotypical], and we would never want to perpetuate that.” For many loyal customers, that talking hand might need a bit more explaining.

Wodka’s Anti-Semitic Campaign

Wodka vodka got a lot of attention when the company unveiled a billboard in New York last December saying: “Christmas Quality, Hanukkah Pricing.” The move prompted a barrage of criticism that the ad was anti-Semitic.

Consequence: Bloggers, fans and officials protested the offensive billboard. The Anti-Defamation League said the ad reinforced anti-Semitic stereotypes and called the billboard “crude and offensive.” Wodka issued an apology on Twitter and released a statement dismissing any anti-Semitic charges. The billboard was promptly taken down.

Amusing examples, but it’s not so funny for the brands in question. Not only were there likely significant financial ramifications to these actions, but also the potentially long-term impact on brand image and brand equity.

A version of this story first appeared on The Researchist.

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