Not Ready for Primetime
A well-thought-out commercial can pay off big time for a company, but the opposite is also true: Half-baked ideas can come back to haunt them in the form of PR nightmares and sagging sales. From controversial or offensive ads to head-scratchers and off-the-charts cheesiness, we've rounded up 24 of the most cringe-worthy commercials of all time.
Pepsi: Kendall Jenner Protests (2017)
In one of the most recent commercials that will live in infamy, Pepsi decided it was somehow a good idea to roll out an ad featuring Kendall Jenner calming a protest by handing a police officer a can of soda. Activists blasted the commercial for trivializing recent tensions over race relations and police brutality, and Pepsi promptly pulled it off the air.
Skittles: Umbilical Cord (2017)
Er, happy Mother's Day? This tribute from Skittles was meant to follow in the company's grand tradition of quirky ads, but the imagery of a grown man consuming Skittles that his mother feeds him by way of his lumpy, still-attached umbilical cord proved too gross for, well, everyone. The company pulled it down after a short run online.
Qiaobi Detergent: Laundry Day (2016)
In what some critics charge was the most racist commercial ever to hit the airwaves, the young woman in this Chinese commercial forces a black man into her washing machine after he whistles at her. Once the cycle is up, he slowly emerges as a smiling, winking Asian man, much to her delight. The company apologized after an international outcry.
Miracle Mattress: Twin Towers Sale (2016)
What better way to raise the profile of your mattress store than with an ad making light of 9/11? A Texas mattress company did just that with a commercial promoting its "Twin Towers sale" -- all mattress sold at twin-bed prices. But it gets worse: Two stacks of mattresses fall onto employees at the end of the ad, while the manager promises viewers that "we'll never forget." The store closed for about a week after nationwide outrage, reopening only with new (re-trained) employees.
GoDaddy: Lost Puppy (2015)
GoDaddy has been widely panned for its raunchy commercials, but its most offensive turned out to feature not a buxom woman, but a puppy. The lost golden retriever tumbles out of a truck and makes a long journey home to his owner -- who's grateful only because she's sold the pup online. Animal rights groups condemned the ads, since animals purchased online often end up neglected or abused. GoDaddy ended up pulling the ad, which had been slated to run during the Super Bowl.
Nationwide: Dead Child (2015)
This widely panned Super Bowl ad features a boy lamenting a number of things he says he'll never get to do: ride a bike, kiss a girl, travel the world, get married. Why? He died in a mysterious home accident. The morbid commercial landed with a thud because, unsurprisingly, people don't want to think about dead children while they eat nachos and watch football. Nationwide was forced to issue a statement clarifying the ad was meant to draw attention to child safety, not sell insurance.
McDonald's: Carry On (2015)
On the surface, it seems like a nice idea: a McDonald's ad documenting supportive signs that have shown up under the trademark Golden Arches, including some urging strength in the face of national disasters like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing. But the limited-run commercial faced plenty of blowback online, where critics contended that it was a ham-handed attempt to profit from tragedy and to obscure the controversies facing McDonald's, like workers' low wages.
Hyundai: Pipe Job (2013)
Attempted suicide is surely a way to sell cars, right? Someone thought so, ultimately resulting in a commercial showing a man trying to poison himself with carbon monoxide from his car. Of course, he isn't successful because he drives a hydrogen-powered ix35 with clean emissions. After intense backlash, Hyundai distanced itself from the ad, apologizing and saying the commercial had not been requested or approved (even though it had been created by the company's in-house ad agency).
Mountain Dew: Police Lineup (2013)
To say that this absurd commercial, the brainchild of rapper Tyler, The Creator, raised a lot of hackles would be putting it mildly. A thoroughly battered woman is pressed to pick her assailant from a police lineup of several black men ... and a goat. The goat taunts the woman, telling her "snitches get stitches" among other things. The ad was slammed for reinforcing racial stereotypes and promoting violence against women. It was quickly pulled.
Popchips: Dating Videos (2012)
Ashton Kutcher stars as several bachelors including Raj, a Bollywood producer "looking for the most delicious thing on the planet," in this ill-advised Popchips sendup of dating videos. Unsurprisingly, the online ad drew fire for Kutcher's "brown face" makeup and stereotypical Indian accent. The company later pulled down the commercial and apologized for offending viewers.
Groupon: Tibet (2011)
Tibetan people have long protested their oppression at the hands of the Chinese government, and a Groupon Super Bowl ad appeared to call attention to this plight -- at first, at least. That's before it pivots to praise for a Tibetan restaurant's fish curry (which you can get for half off with a Groupon, of course). The tone-deaf commercial featuring Academy Award-winning actor Timothy Hutton was heaped with criticism for mocking a serious situation before it was pulled.
Luvs: Poop, There It Is (2011)
Someone at Luvs thought it would be adorable for cartoon tots to soil their diapers so explosively that their blowouts could be rated by judges on a 10-point scale. While the animated blowouts probably didn't cause most parents to bat an eye, they certainly earned an eye-roll (and perhaps slight nausea) from many other viewers. After 115,000 votes, Consumerist readers named the commercial the "Absolute Worst Ad in America" for 2011.
Burger King: Texican Whopper (2009)
Burger King didn't make any friends south of the border with a commercial promoting its jalapeño-topped Texican Whopper. It shows a tall American cowboy moving in with a short Mexican wrestler who is cloaked in what appears to be the Mexican flag. The tagline? "The taste of Texas with a little spicy Mexican." The ad was pulled after Mexican officials complained it was disrespectful to the nation and its flag.
eMobile: Change Monkey (2008)
Shown only in Japan, this cell-phone commercial featured a suspiciously political monkey whipping a crowd into a frenzy as onlookers hold signs calling for change. The ad quickly amassed criticism from viewers who saw it as a racially charged sendup of Barack Obama's U.S. presidential campaign. The company apologized, calling the ad "a cross-cultural gap issue," and promptly axed the commercial.
Sales Genie: Chinese Pandas (2008)
Yet another Super Bowl ad denounced as racist, this Sales Genie commercial employed cartoon pandas with bad Chinese accents scrambling to save their furniture business so they don't have to go back to the zoo. Unsurprisingly, the ad was pulled after backlash over negative stereotyping. (The company's CEO, however, was relatively nonplussed: "We never thought anyone would be offended ... The pandas are Chinese. They don't speak German.")
Motrin: Baby-Wearing 'Mom-alogue' (2008)
This Motrin ad, a series of mildly snarky gripes about how painful wearing a baby in a sling or carrier can be, ran afoul of passionate baby-wearing moms who felt it was dismissive of attachment parenting. Though some observers thought the moms' reaction was over the top, Motrin pulled the ad anyway after discovering the hard way that social media can be a powerful tool in the hands of a vocal minority.
Snickers: Mechanics' Kiss (2007)
Two mechanics go to great lengths to prove their manliness, even ripping out their chest hair, after accidentally locking lips while sharing a Snickers. This Super Bowl ad didn't sit well with several gay rights' groups, who said the commercial was homophobic, and Mars quickly yanked it off the air. (Also at issue: alternate endings online, one of which showed one man beating the other with a wrench after the kiss.)
General Motors: Suicidal Robot (2007)
Impressive in its scope, this GM Super Bowl ad chronicles the downfall of a robot after it makes a mistake and is fired from its GM assembly-line job. But the crestfallen robot chooses to jump off a bridge at the end of the commercial, prompting a suicide-prevention group to blast GM for showing suicide is "a viable option when someone fails or loses their job." GM later altered the ad's ending.
Miller Light: Catfight (2003)
It's the stuff of every man's dreams -- or so Miller Light wants you to think. Two women tear off each other's clothes in an argument over why Miller Light is great. They end up wrestling in a fountain and wet cement. Of course, it all turns out to be the fantasy of two dudes sitting at a bar. (The grand finale? The women make out.) Miller Light stood behind the ad despite complaints, but it was deemed too racy for the Super Bowl.
Holiday Inn: Bob Johnson (1997)
What's funnier than a transgender person at a high-school reunion? Lots of things, of course, but Holiday Inn missed the memo. Its Super Bowl ad used a man's realization that his former high-school classmate, Bob, is now a voluptuous woman to promote extensive hotel renovations. Holiday Inn pulled the ad, though many of its franchisees claimed that the edgy ad was exactly what the brand needed to appeal to younger people.
Dirt Devil: Fred Astaire (1997)
The sight of elegant, iconic Fred Astaire twirling and whirling with a Dirt Devil vacuum a decade after his death touched off plenty of controversy. Though the ads were approved by Astaire's widow, Robyn, they were lambasted by many, including his own daughter, Ava. The "paltry, unconscionable commercials are the antithesis of everything my lovely, gentle father represented," she said in a scathing letter to the company.
Mentos: The Freshmaker (1992)
You may have repressed the memory of Mentos' unabashedly cheesy commercials from the early '90s, but we're here to remind you: Just try watching this guy cross a crowded street by sliding through the backseat of a stranger's car without cringing. And who can beat that jingle? USA Today voted it one of the worst advertising campaigns in 1994, but Mentos laughed all the way to the bank with sales that were through the roof.
Sizzler: All-American Buffet (1991)
If you can make it past the all-American clichés packed into the first two minute of this lengthy promotional commercial, you'll be treated to plenty of hysterical images of buffet-goers eating and bonding at Sizzler in jarring, gauzy slow motion. Bonus: Early '90s fashion was apparently just as bad as '80s fashion. Even Sizzler acknowledges the ad hasn't aged well, tweeting a self-effacing meme when it resurfaced in 2015.
Apple: Lemmings (1985)
In an effort to follow up its edgy, Orwellian "1984" commercial, Apple debuted "Lemmings" next year during the Super Bowl. It showed blindfolded businessmen and women (IBM users, presumably) being led off a cliff, and proposed Macintosh Office as an alternative. Unsurprisingly, the chilling ad didn't sit well with viewers. Even worse, Mac Office wasn't even ready for customers to buy until 1987 -- more than two years after the commercial ran. Oops.