5 “Cringy” Marketing Fails and 4 Campaigns that Succeeded (plus bonus)

5 “Cringy” Marketing Fails and 4 Campaigns that Succeeded (plus bonus)

Marketing is like every other profession in that, yes, companies will make mistakes from time to time. Sometimes these errors are innocuous and garner a bit of a giggle. Other times they can actually ruin a company’s reputation and cause them to lose followers. And then there are even more occasions that end up strengthening a company’s credibility, allowing them to reach people from around the world through solid messages. Today, we’re gonna look at examples of some of the biggest marketing “fails” and “wins.”

The Awkward Stuff

Let’s look at the “cringy” stuff first. You don’t need us to tell you why these didn’t work. Just see for yourself.

The Colgate frozen dinner fiasco

Colgate Kitchen Entrees made their debut in 1982. Unfortunately, they didn’t take off like Colgate had hoped. Something about a toothpaste company making microwavable meals didn’t add up. Supposedly, they created the campaign in the first place to make people think of brushing their teeth after eating. Well, who does that? Thus, this is a great example of understanding your market and knowing when having a brand extension is going to be helpful.

IHOP falls “flat” on its face

In 2015, IHOP made a very tasteless tweet. Here it is for your own viewing pleasure:

Image credit: IHOP

Mmmm, pancakes have never tasted so misogynistic.

The company apologized within hours after the inevitable backlash but c’mon guys. This ain’t cool.

Bloomingdale’s, no!

Take a gander at this one:

Image credit: Bloomingdale’s

Um, since when is it okay to spike anyone’s drink? And that guy’s creepy stare isn’t helping matters, just saying.

So, what was Bloomingdale’s going for, anyway? Apart from attracting attention, we’re not entirely sure. This is definitely one of those cases where, if you don’t have anything to say, you really shouldn’t force it (literally!).

I’m not sure “offensive” covers it

A few years ago, a now-defunct mattress company in Texas decided to have a 9/11 sale. For one day only, you could buy two mattresses of any size for a “twin” price! Boy, that’s just top-notch….Yeah, this one really falls into the “how could this possibly be considered a good idea” category. And as if the concept wasn’t brutal enough, the delivery is so corny it just turns the whole endeavour into a sloppy and insensitive mess.

You can find it here.

Not the smartest thing to do

In 2006, the American identity theft protection company LifeLock wanted to run a campaign detailing how its systems worked. Essentially, it wanted to let people know that, “LifeLock makes your personal information useless to a criminal.” In doing so, Todd Davis, LifeLock’s CEO, actually placed his social security number on the ad. This backfired tremendously. Since the promotion was issued, Davis has been the victim of identity theft 13 times and LifeLock was fined $12 million for deceptive advertising.

Image credit: LifeLock

The Good Stuff

Over the years, there have been tons of marketing campaigns that have performed extremely well – some even better than expected. Here are some of our favourites:

WWF #LastSelfie

In 2014, the World Wildlife Fund launched a SnapChat campaign prompting environmental awareness in youth. This engaging and not-so-textbook approach to wildlife conservation spread quickly. In half a week, it sparked 40,000 tweets and caused donations to the WWF to skyrocket. This is a wonderful example of properly using a platform to promote a cause.

Image credit: WWF


In the months leading up to its release, Deadpool was everywhere. Social media and billboards were practically overflowing with the guy. It was crude, hilarious, and totally successful. But most importantly, it knew how and when to be risqué; not all campaigns do this appropriately. That’s why Deadpool is a magnificent example of marketers understanding their audience, subject matter, and platforms. Granted, Marvel’s pre-existing, mammoth following encouraged the film’s success too, but the tone of Deadpool’s campaigns were so different from other films’ of its genre that it clearly held its own.

Image credit: Hypable.com

Tim Hortons’ Canada 150 ‘RRRoll Up the Rim to Win’

Several marketers have cashed in on Canada’s 150th. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the most successful attempts was run by Tim Hortons, one of the most “Canadian” companies ever. The best part? They didn’t have to create anything new! They just brought back their always-profitable “RRRoll Up the Rim” campaign, tied it to the holiday, and people flocked to them. It was awesome. The important thing to know is that, for the most part, prize-based marketing is a winning tactic because it incentivizes people to come back. Associate it with a beloved holiday and you’re definitely set. But more importantly, promote something people can unite over. It’s the best feeling.

Image credit: Tim Hortons

Airbnb #treehousetuesdays

If your company can use social media to provide your customers with a desired experience, you’ve probably got a solid following. Engagement is key when it comes to marketing and Airbnb definitely nailed it with their #treehousetuesdays campaign.

In this case, Airbnb shared photos of listings that allow people to bunk in actual tree houses. How fun is that?!

Image credit: Mpora.com

Bonus: Rick and Morty Szechuan Sauce Revival

This one technically isn’t a marketing campaign but oh man, it’s too huge not to mention.

Here’s the scoop, in case you don’t know the story: in 1998, McDonald’s released a line of Szechuan sauce as part of a promotional tie-in for the Disney animated movie Mulan. It was taken off their menu after the film’s release and was forgotten by almost everyone except for the creators of Rick and Morty. In the third season premiere, they made an offhand joke about Rick adamantly searching for the sauce. This sparked so much interest in fans that some turned to social demanding Szechuan sauce to be reintroduced to the McDonald’s menu. The fast food company obliged but only sold it for a day and in limited quantities. Obviously, this wasn’t enough and in an effort to maintain Rick and Morty fans’ loyalty, McDonald’s has since promised to release it more widely this winter.

Sometimes you don’t even have to try to make something go viral, I guess.

Image credit: Adult Swim

Marketing is an interesting business. So much of it has to do with psychology and if you make an error in judgment, things can go downhill pretty quickly. Or, you could totally nail it and become the go-to company in your field because of your efforts. It’s not always this black-and-white though. All-in-all, you should be okay as long as you don’t tie in a product to a national tragedy or encourage people to spike their friends’ drinks (what were they thinking, anyway?).


Greg Plante
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