Ads need to cut through, get attention, be newsworthy, outrageous even. We totally get it. And we love great advertising.
But sometimes in that desperate fight for customer recognition or sales, brands mess it up with horrible consequences. There are plenty of cheap ads which are hideous, but the ones in this list are mostly big-budget howlers.
Some damaged brands. Many destroyed careers. Others are so insanely vacuous or disturbing you’re left wondering what they were taking. And in a couple of cases, the ads were so utterly out of touch they may even have helped the brand through adverse publicity… does that count?
Let’s do it – The 13 Worst Ads Ever Made…
Chanel No. 5 – “Brad Pitt” (2012)
The big picture: A shaggy-haired Brad Pitt stands in a room spouting nonsensical drivel for 30 long, long seconds.
Lacking any kind of creative idea whatsoever, Pitt desperately tries to inject profundity into meaningless, pretentious rhetoric. The kind of baloney that may have been dragged screaming through dozens of different languages in Google Translate then dumped unceremoniously back into English. The result is simply hilarious.
If you didn't know it was an ad for Chanel No. 5, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just a PSA alerting you of Brad Pitt, or maybe a tourism commercial as a love letter to the universe, designed to lure travellers from alternate universes to this one. Truly, the smell of disaster.
Oatly: Milk for Humans (2021)
The big picture: Oatly’s tone-deaf CEO stands in the middle of a field singing a song about his company’s oat milk.
It starts as a zoomed-in video of Petersson singing, but as the camera zooms out we see the CEO playing a keyboard. A glass of Oatly’s goat milk sits next to him on the keyboard.
Not only is the video weird in itself, but the lyrics of the song are also bizarre. “It’s like milk,” Petersson begins the song. “But for humans.” “Wow! No cow!” he repeatedly sings in the video. Irritating in the extreme, that’s it. But now try and get that tune out of your head…
So a 30 second Super Bowl LV ad went for $5,600,000, according to data from Super Bowl Tours. It’s unclear if that is how much Oatly paid for this specific ad spot, but that still seems like a crazy amount of money to pay for such a weird, simple ad. But hey, here we are talking about it.
Pepsi: “Live for now” (2017)
The big picture: Kendall Jenner stops a street protest by giving a police officer a can of Pepsi.
To anyone who’s ever been in a protest and knows of hardship and struggle for social change, this was like a total tone-deaf slap in the face that instantly trivialised anything they’ve ever stood for. A social justice movement is not an opportunity to sell sugar water.
Pepsi said the aim of the ad was “to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding” but it was widely mocked as insensitive and insulting, turning into a PR disaster. For the brand it’s become the advertising equivalent of nuclear waste, something all parties want to bury deep, deep underground.
Let’s leave the last word to Aimee Woodall, Founder and President at cause-driven ad agency The Black Sheep Agency: “It was the biggest fuck-up of the year”.
Hyundai: “Pipe Job” (2013)
The big picture: In a suburban garage, a man tries to kill himself via carbon monoxide exhaust fumes piped into the interior of the car. But he isn't successful - because he drives a hydrogen-powered ix35 with clean emissions.
Almost inconceivably, depicting an attempted suicide becomes a way to sell cars, right? How it’s possible for this to get through multiple levels of management review and approval is beyond us. Belittling the very real scourge of suicide is unforgivable, especially as the ad graphically demonstrates exactly how to go about killing yourself in this way.
It’s incomprehensible in an age where we’re finally making inroads in the public understanding of mental illness, and reducing the discrimination and prejudice against those who may have one.
Qiaobi Detergent: "Laundry Day" (2016)
The big picture: A young Chinese woman forces an Afro-Caribbean man headfirst into a washing machine. After the wash cycle the lid opens and a pale asian man emerges with a wink, much to the woman's delight.
Totally jaw-dropping. This Chinese laundry detergent commercial is perhaps the most racist commercial ever made.
Little Baby’s Ice Cream: “This is a special time” (2012)
The big picture: A wide eyed androgynous anthropomorphic ice cream creature performs auto-cannibalism in front of camera.
There are some things you just wish you could un-see. This is one of them. Doug Garth Williams, there may be something with your water supply.
Mountain Dew: “Puppy-Monkey-Baby” (2016)
The big picture: A Frankenstein-esque puppy-monkey-baby hybrid creature prowls around a suburban lounge licking people’s faces and making them dance.
Ultra-disturbing, this is an insane trip-fuelled odyssey through a nightmarish world that provides an insight into what it might be like to experience a particularly vicious acid-induced mania. Genuinely hellish.
Polarising audiences, it never became the meme that Mountain Dew wanted it to. Take a moment to think about how as a species, we have evolved to this…
Nationwide: “Dead Child” (2015)
The big picture: A young boy speaks to camera, lamenting a range of things he’ll never do: ride a bike, travel the world, get married. The reason? Because he died in some unexplained home accident.
Premiering at Super Bowl, this ultra-morbid commercial bombed because, perhaps unsurprisingly, people don't want to think about one of the most traumatic experiences in human existence while they eat nachos and watch football.
Instead of associating their product with household safety and prudent parenting, Nationwide baffled and depressed Super Bowl viewers and the ad was pulled off air within hours. Instead of saving lives, it likely resulted in a stampede for the closest bar.
Coca Cola – “Duffy on a bike” (2009)
The big picture: Coming off stage after a gig, Duffy steals a bicycle, rides aimlessly around dark city streets, through a supermarket and then back to the stage for her encore, quaffing the product along the way.
Arguably the ad that completely destroyed the singer’s career in 60 seconds. Before: 7 million album sales and 3 Brit Awards. After: complete oblivion.
The gravel-throated chanteuse sounds like an out of tune duck with a bad head cold (and we’re being polite) singing “I gotta be me” in an ad that makes no sense whatsoever.
Sony Playstation 3 – “Baby” (2006)
The big picture: A toy baby, alone, naked—sitting by itself in a pale, sterile room facing a lone black Playstation 3. Cue ominous music. The baby doll is whipsawed through a range of emotions, from laughing and sadness, to reverse crying.
What are we supposed to get out of that, huh? That the PS3 will make creepy baby dolls cry, retract their tears, and confuse it with their mother?
This ad was straight-up terrifying, bordering on a horror movie trailer. Part of a US$150m campaign that made absolutely zero sense. Perhaps we can ask the brand to reimburse us for our therapy bills?
Snickers - “Mechanics’ Kiss” (2007)
The big picture: Two car mechanics leaning over an engine find themselves chewing on the opposite ends of a Snickers bar. Their lips meet. Suddenly insecure about their heterosexual masculinity, they go to great lengths to prove their manliness, ripping out chest hair, drinking battery acid, motor oil and beating each other with wrenches (in an alternate version).
Homophobic in the extreme, this ad would have done nothing to stem the rising tide of violence against homosexual men. And hey, the subtext is that if you think you’re gay, it’s ok to self-harm.
The ad was pulled off air after negative behavior associated with gay sexuality was er, pointed out to the client.
General Motors: “Robot” (2007)
The big picture: A cute, anthropomorphised robot in a car assembly plant makes a mistake and gets “fired” from its job. Outcast from the factory, it becomes increasingly depressed in a series of menial occupations and ends up throwing itself off a bridge in a suicidal act.
OK, wow. So General Motors thinks it’s ok to spend millions of dollars on an ad that depicts suicide as a viable option when someone loses their job. Really?
Apparently intended to demonstrate GM’s commitment to quality, the brand was forced to change the ending to something more palatable.
McDonald’s UK – “Dead Dad”
The big picture: McDonalds uses child bereavement to sell us more product.
So… Dad's dead, but a tasty fillet o’ fish will make things ok, right? Who approved this classic? To any child who’s ever lost a parent, watching this trivializes their grief in one 90 second hit.
What’s the takeaway here? Maybe that no matter how unfit, depressed, or underwhelming you are, McDonalds will always be there to feed you and your depression?
Our favorite Youtube comment: “Perhaps there should've been a final shot of the lad placing an Extra Value Meal on his dad's grave”.
Head On – “Apply directly to the forehead” (2006)
The big picture: A female model applies what looks like a glue stick to her forehead. The voice over repeats the simple curt message over and over: “Head On. Apply directly to the forehead… Head On. Apply directly to the forehead…” and so on.
Woah. An advert that repeats over and over what to do with the product, without you ever knowing why. Is it a deodorant? Mosquito repellent? Superglue? Preparation for some obscure suicide cult?
Manufacturer Miralus Healthcare decided not to include any factual claims about the product. We suspect this may be because none of Head On's ingredients have any scientifically supported effectiveness in treatment of a headache. But hey, at least you’ll never forget that it exists!