Marketing Fails and What to Learn From Them

By Madison Taylor
February 7, 2020

Everyone wants to stand out, and marketers are no exception. Sometimes, though, marketers go a little too far in their efforts to come up with unique, memorable campaigns — occasionally with significant financial consequences. Here are a few of the most misguided campaigns from the last year.

1. Fudges the Numbers is one of the most famous dating sites on the internet, but it’s not free — users with unpaid subscriptions can view their matches, but they can’t communicate with them or read the messages they’re sent unless they pay for a membership.

In September, millions of holders of free accounts received emails telling them that someone had messaged them and that they’d have to pay for a full subscription to read the message. Exciting, right? But when these users clicked on the links in the emails, they only got error messages.

According to the FTC, Match was deliberately using fake accounts to entice free users into paying for a subscription. Match has denied the allegations but provided no further comment.

The Lesson

The courts have yet to decide whether Match broke any laws, but the damage has been done: users signed up for a service and paid their hard-earned money to read a message that apparently never existed in the first place.

Match betrayed their users’ trust. Subscribers count on Match’s service to find people that they might have a connection with. If those people aren’t real, then why give Match any money at all?

2. Kim Kardashian’s Tonedeaf Clothing Line

Kim Kardashian West launched her line of slimming undergarments in June, leveraging her reputation and fame to sell “shapewear and solutions for women that actually work.” That’s all well and good, but she decided to name the new line of clothing, “Kimono.”

As BBC News Japanese editor Yuko Kato put it, “Taking a Japanese word of specific and extreme cultural significance, stripping away its meaning, and appropriating it for your brand” was unacceptable. It didn’t even make sense — the line wasn’t Japanese-inspired, so the only reason to name it “Kimono” was a play on Kardashian West’s first name. The range of clothing has since been renamed “Skims Solutionwear.”

The Lesson

Cultural appropriation accusations aren’t new. Ariana Grande was accused of appropriating Japanese imagery to promote her song “7 Rings.” Katy Perry dressed as a Geisha in a performance of “Unconditionally” and wore cornrows in her music video for “This Is How We Do.” Karlie Kloss wore a Native American headdress in a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. And this isn’t Kim Kardashian’s first brush with appropriation: in the past, she drew fan criticism for putting her hair in cornrows.

Any brand or person in the public eye has to be more aware of public sentiment around the imagery they’re using. Simply put, Kim Kardashian (or her branding people) should have known better.

3. McDonald’s Misses the Mark

Around Halloween, McDonald’s advertised a two-for-one strawberry ice cream deal with the phrase, “Sundae Bloody Sundae.” The ad was simple wordplay, presumably based on the U2 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which was itself about the Bogside Massacre that resulted in the deaths of 14 unarmed civil rights workers at the hands of British soldiers in 1972.

Customers were understandably horrified that McDonald’s would use a reference to such a dark day in history to sell dessert, and McDonald’s pulled the ad.

The Lesson

It’s a small world. Companies have always had to be careful about how people would receive their localized campaigns and products in other cultures. Ford had to rename their Pinto in Spanish-speaking companies, where “pinto” is a slang term for male genitalia. In Portugal, it’s possible that “Sundae, Bloody Sundae” isn’t a sensitive subject. McDonald’s mistake was in failing to realize that the ad would spread.

4. That Peloton Ad

If you haven’t heard the hubbub about a particular holiday-themed commercial for exercise bike company Peloton, we’d love to take a tour of the rock you’ve been living under. The ad takes a first-person, video-diary perspective of a woman gifted a Peloton bike by her husband. The woman in the ad is nervous at the beginning of her journey, but expresses gratitude by the end, saying she had no idea how much the bike would change her life.

The Lesson

As of late December 2019, the ad has 21,000 thumbs-ups on YouTube and 24,000 thumbs-downs, so it’s safe to say that reactions have been mixed. Critics of the ad say that gifting an exercise bike to a woman has sexist undertones, implying that her appearance is more important than anything else and that it’s her responsibility to maintain her fitness for her husband’s benefit.

Defenders maintain that there’s nothing sexist about buying a woman who’s clearly a fitness enthusiast a toy (and a pretty fancy one) in service of her favorite hobby. It’s also worth noting that she explicitly enjoys the Peloton in the commercial.

The lesson is that marketing will always be unpredictable. It’s clear from the fact that Peloton hasn’t pulled the ad that they don’t see anything wrong with it, through their market cap took nearly a billion-dollar hit. The fact is that just because people outside your target market don’t like what you’re doing doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Peloton is sticking to their guns. Sometimes you should too.

The Bottom Line

It’s a marketer’s responsibility to keep their finger on the pulse of the world. They need to be aware of what people are talking about, what they like and don’t like, and the latest slang. But as a marketer, you’ll also have to remember that you can’t be all things to all people.

A message that appeals to one group might bother another, and social media can amplify the message of relatively small groups of detractors so that their voices are deafening — that doesn’t mean they represent everyone. If you want your marketing to succeed, you’ll have to take risks to walk that line.