The Top 5 Biggest Flops of Shockvertising

The Top 5 Biggest Flops of Shockvertising

From Peta to Bacardi, these companies’ advertisements show that all attention isn’t good attention. 

Shockvertising (shock+ advertising) is a tactic where an advertiser uses taboo subjects or provocative themes to incite a strong public reaction. This tactic has been known to be quite successful in raising awareness and encouraging behavioral change surrounding acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). But this tactic can sometimes go really wrong and tarnish a brand’s reputation for good.  

If you saw Balenciaga’s recent advertising campaign, you are already privy to the world of failed shockvertising (although in this case, it might not have been done knowingly). But Balenciaga’s case isn’t the only instance where shockvertising hasn’t worked out in favor of the company. Here is a list of some of the biggest shockvertising flops that you’ve probably never heard of. 

Peta’s “Holocaust on your plate” exhibition

Simply reading the title should tell you why it shocked people. The animal rights non-profit organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has made more than one problematic advertisement to promote its stance against the consumption of animal products. But this exhibition deserves special attention because the high court of Germany banned it. 

In 2003, PETA created an exhibition that featured images of emaciated victims of the holocaust positioned next to pictures of animals on farms. One image even showed a pile of naked human bodies juxtaposed with pig carcasses. Naturally, this didn’t sit right with the Jewish community— both in the U.S., where this campaign originally began, and Germany. The Jewish community in Germany expressed that this was a violation of human dignity, especially of the holocaust victims. 

Droit des Non Fumeurs’s anti-smoking advertisement

Droit des Non Fumeurs (The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association) is a French non-profit organization working to protect the rights of non-smokers in France. The organization came under fire back in 2010 when it released an advertisement that showed a young girl and a young boy kneeling in front of an older male figure. The figure has a hand on their heads, and they have cigarettes in their mouths, which very closely resembles forced oral sex. 

To make matters worse, the advertisement was paired with the slogan “Smoking means being a slave to tobacco.” The ad was seen as very distasteful. Tobacco makers were shocked that they were being compared to pedophiles just for producing cigarettes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, child rights activists felt that the campaign was insensitive toward victims of child sexual abuse. 

Antonio Federici’s seductive ice cream ads

In 2009 and 2010, the Italian ice cream manufacturer Antonio Federici Gelato Italiano created advertisements featuring young nuns and priests in compromising positions. One of the most popular ones shows a young nun about to kiss a priest. Another shows two priests who are about to kiss, and a third depicts a pregnant nun eating the company’s gelato. All three of these ads had sacrilegious taglines: “Kiss temptation”, “We believe in salvation” and “Immaculately conceived … Ice cream is our religion.” respectively. 

Naturally, these ads were not appreciated by a lot of people. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) of the U.K. received multiple complaints about all three ads. These complaints mentioned how the ads were offensive to Catholics and also to those who were practicing nuns and priests. Consequently, the ASA banned these ads and instructed Antonio Federici to make sure that its future adverts are not offensive to the public.  

Renault’s “N-word” advertisement 

At this point in the list, we’re starting to think that the 2000s were the heyday of shockvertising. In 2007, the car manufacturer Renault came out with a print advertisement that read “For ten days, we can’t use the N-word”. It wouldn’t be a shocker to anyone that this ad was considered offensive because the “n-word” is usually used to refer to an extremely derogatory term towards black people. 

Of course, Renault didn’t use the word in the same way since the ad mentioned that the company’s car dealers would not use the word “no” from November 9-18, 2007. But given the negative connotations of the term “n-word,” the company ended up taking down the advertisement once people started complaining about it to the ASA. 

Bacardi’s “Ugly Girlfriend” advertisement 

The final entry on this list is a Bacardi ad campaign from 2008. The company came up with an advertisement that read “Get your hands on the hotness boosting accessory now: An Ugly Girlfriend” to promote its Bacardi Breezer line. We are introduced to a different girlfriend in each of the ads, with every description being equally misogynistic. 

Naturally, women didn’t take too kindly to being pitted against each other for male attention nor did they appreciate being reduced to their looks. And so, Bacardi eventually took down the campaign and apologized to those the ads had offended. 

These campaigns all tell us that there is a limit to what the public would accept when it comes to shocking advertising. While some public service announcements (like the ones about HIV and AIDS as we discussed right at the beginning of the article) might get away with being shocking, the same isn’t true for all cases. 

Also, it is important to note that all of the ads we have mentioned above came out over a decade ago, and things have changed drastically since then. Customers now hold brands accountable for their actions, and so, it’s possible that creating such ads could get you permanently “canceled”. Take this as a warning sign and always test your ads with a small focus group to learn how people respond to your ad so that you can make changes before things get out of control. 

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Header image courtesy of Freepik


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