This article has been contributed by Tom Simpkins.
Marketing campaigns are some of the best ways to get the word out about your company, a product, or even just a message. Whether you’re aiming to make your brand iconic or simply trying to make a joke out of the competition, a marketing campaign can be a powerful tool.
Campaigns can go viral, become beloved, even integrate into the zeitgeist; but they can do so either in a good way or a bad way. Sometimes your marketing message can fall on deaf ears, or even be interpreted in strange ways, all depending on a host of different factors that range from how you interact with your audiences to how your audiences perceive your campaign.
When this happens, small mistakes can snowball into PR meltdowns, and even the most innocent of intentions can reap disastrous consequences. Needless to say, a lot of people looking from the outside-in can find these flops and failures hilarious, but they can also serve as powerful lessons on what to avoid in the future.
With that in mind, Rombus Packaging takes a look at some of the most ruinous marketing campaigns to ever backfire, all whilst ruminating on how these mistakes could have been averted, or even amended in hindsight.
American Airlines: The Lifetime Ticket
‘Unlimited travel for life’ sounds like the ultimate golden ticket, especially when considering it is always first class, and anyone who thinks that it’d be too good to be true then, well, they’d be right. Offered to 28 lucky recipients, American Airlines offered what was called the ‘Unlimited AAirpass’ that was a dream come true for those who had it and a nightmare for the airline itself.
After the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, American Airlines had been whacked pretty hard by a variety of different factors including, but not limited to, competition from growing rivals and rapidly falling ticket prices. In 1980 alone they reported a $76 million loss, and so when the airline’s new president, Robert Crandall, took over he decided that changes need to be made; bold, drastic, almost crazy changes.
One of those changes was dubbed the ‘ultimate travel perk’; the Unlimited AAirpass.
For a one-time, upfront payment of $250,000 (valued at roughly $560,000 at the time of writing) customers could join the exclusive club with their Unlimited AAirpass, which might sound like a big price tag yet, after little to no time at all, it could easily pay for itself. Many of the 28 AAirpass holders, and the airline itself, very quickly realised that this was the case.
Crandell once stated that; “The idea was that firms would buy this for their top performers but as usual, the public is way smarter than any corporation. People immediately figured out we’d made a mistake pricing-wise.” If there was one saving grace for AA it was that they were the ones who chose who they offered these AAirpasses, which in total had netted the airline at least $5.5 million, to.
One such person was Steve Rothstein who had been contacted as he had travelled with AA so much. He was offered the Unlimited AAirpass, along with the optional addition of the guest pass for $150,000, and became one of the top two users of it; stacking up an incredible 10,000 flights.
Whether it was flying to Ontario for a sandwich or going all-out and touring the world, Rothstein truly took full advantage of the Unlimited AAirpass, stating that “the contract was truly unlimited, so why not use it as intended?”.
The other top flyer was one Jacques Vroom, who had taken out a loan to buy both his own and a companion AAirpass, managing to rack up a mindblowing 2 million miles per year.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and eventually in 2008 AA decided that Rothstein and Vroom had had enough. Amassing an army of lawyers, AA prepared for legal battles when they cornered Vroom in Heathrow and prevented Rothstein from boarding a flight in Chicago. Citing to both AAirpass holders that they’d terminated their contracts due to ‘fraudulent activity’ (including frequently cancelling flights as well as offering the pass to others for a price) the days of flying to London for lunch were over for these jet setters, yet they didn’t go down without a fight.
Rallying their own legal teams, Rothstein and Vroom took to AA, demanding their contracts be reinstated. However, American Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2011, so their demands for free travel fell upon deaf ears.
Turner Broadcasting/Interference Inc.: The 2007 Boston Mooninite Panic
It’s safe to say that if a marketing campaign is, at any point of the process, perceived as a terrorist attack then it’s not a roaring success. Shock and awe only goes so far in generating buzz, especially when considering that the intention of this marketing campaign was designed to be much more subtle and underground in scale.
Starting as the humble brainchild of Interference Inc., what quickly became known as the ‘2007 Boston Mooninite Panic’ was nothing more than a case of guerilla marketing, aiming to spread the word (albeit in a cryptic manner) that there was a movie coming out, based on the cult-followed TV show ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’. Given the status and the scene of the show, it made sense that the movie’s marketing would be equally unorthodox, and so a plan was set in motion, using Boston artists and an array of Lite-Brite toys.
Boston based artist Peter Berdovsky took to the streets in the early hours on a day in the middle of January 2007, assisted by the aid of Sean Stevens and Dana Seaver, to distribute the Lite-Brite style electronic placards around Boston. 20 were set up in all, each depicting the Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters known as Ignignokt and Err, aka the ‘Mooninites’, and were set up to illuminate sometime in the following afternoon.
What started as a harmless example of guerilla marketing quickly spiralled into a panic, with a passenger at Sullivan Station pointing out the odd-looking device to a policeman. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority decided not to take any chances and sent out a request to the bomb squad at 9 am. What followed was charitably labelled as ‘an army of emergency vehicles’ heading towards the device.
As more and more devices were discovered the panic became a frenzy, with the Mayor’s Office even getting involved. To make matters worse, Berdovsky and Stevens ended up being arrested, charged with setting up ‘hoax devices’ that essentially disrupted the peace. The situation was only calmed after a young staffer at the Mayor’s Office popped his head in the room, saw an image of one of the devices and explained that they were characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force; a reveal that wasn’t shocking in its lateness due to the aforementioned cult-status of the show.
Some could argue that the campaign went well, given that it was later covered by the likes of Fox News, the Western Massachusetts radio station WAQY and even the Los Angeles Times. However, the end result still had two innocent men in jail, and it transformed the Boston police department into a laughing stock, with many reactions to the marketing ploy being cutting remarks at the police’s over-reaction.
Burger King: The Gall, The Bland & The Creepy
It’s often been considered that there’s a rivalry between McDonald’s and Burger King, two fast-food titans that both offer burgers, fries and shakes, and yet the reality is that the former is undeniably more successful than the latter. This notion holds true for its marketing campaigns too, which is surprising when considering McDonald’s is represented by an unsettling clown.
Burger King has always had trouble establishing a likeable brand; no matter what country they’re in. Case in point, in Australia they’re not even allowed to go by the name ‘Burger King’, and instead have to masquerade as ‘Hungry Jack’s’, yet it’s mostly in the UK and the US that their lack of marketing abilities has been most obvious.
Starting in the 80s in the US, Burger King began a lacklustre and bemusing campaign called ‘Where’s Herb?’ in which customers were challenged to track down and find an average looking man named Herb in one of their stores. Their reward for this off-brand version of Where’s Waldo was $5,000 and the promotion even allowed customers to buy a Whopper burger for less than a dollar if they said “I’m not Herb” during their order.
The campaign wasn’t helped by the fact that no-one actually knew what Herb looked like, and by the time a description was released no-one really cared anymore. Suffice to say, Burger King wasn’t happy with the results and the marketing firm responsible for it, J. Walter Thompson, wasn’t hired again by BK.
This firm wasn’t the only lack of tact that BK would see though, as in 2009 the UK branch of Burger King promoted a campaign that truly had its demographic in mind; yet clearly had little else on the brain. Labelled as ‘the world’s first guilt-free showercam’, Burger King promoted a live video streaming from a shower in which a ‘shower babe’ sang in the shower.
Yes, that was more or less it. Worse yet (worse that is than the woman’s lack of singing ability) was the fact that those viewing could vote on which bikini she would wear, and part of the competition was offering one of the target viewers (who were primarily young men who had the time to eat Burger King breakfasts and watch this video at around 9:30 am) a date with her.
To call it distasteful would be too charitable, and the lack of elevated breakfast sales quickly put a stop to this crude campaign. However, one major marketing fumble for Burger King that lasted for over a decade was the infamous rebrand of their mascot, ‘The King’, in which the friendly monarch was reimagined as something akin to a supernatural horror icon.
Swiftly given the moniker of ‘Creepy King’, BK’s King mascot was featured in ads magically appearing before people, whether it was on the street or within their own home, brandishing a delicious burger. The adverts, along with his haunting stare & smile, were deeply unsettling and meant that in 2011 Creepy King had to be retired. A spokesperson had even stated that “he scared away women and children” which, really, is the most damning (yet honest) statement one can give for a mascot.
LifeLock: Todd Davis’ Stolen Identity
LifeLock is, to this day, a trustworthy company that offers online and computer security in regards to identity theft. They proudly state that they can block virtually any cyber threat, boasting an average of 142 million cyber threats being blocked a day, and that even if some ne’er-do-wells do manage to slip through the cracks then they have countermeasures to both exact revenge as well as provide reimbursement for any money lost.
This latter point surely would have been of great interest to former CEO and Co-Founder Todd Davis in 2007. Created in 2005 by Davis and business partner Robert Maynard Jr., LifeLock was considered a marvel in anti-identity theft software, and this kind of confidence is what led to one of the most brazen (and, arguably, foolish) marketing campaigns ever undertaken by a software firm.
Billboards across America showcased Davis’ smiling face, his confidence clear to all in his eyes, along with his social security number and with the message;
“Yes, that really is my social security number. No, I’m not crazy. I’m just sure our system works. Just like we have with mine, LifeLock will make your personal information useless to a criminal. And it’s GUARANTEED.”
As anyone with even a trace of humility would let you know, that guarantee wasn’t so iron-clad. Within a month Davis received notifications that bailiffs were seeking him out, as someone had used his identity to obtain a $500 loan from a check-cashing company. This was the first, and likely the smallest, domino to fall in a two-year-long chain of lessons in hubris.
12 more cases of identity fraud appeared for Davis, including a credit card with Credit One Bank with a bill of $573, a phone plan with AT&T that went up to a staggering $2,390 and, oddly enough, a gift-basket that cost $312. Each new case brought about a new headache for Davis, with a new debt collector calling him up for more arbitrary amounts of money from around the country.
It wasn’t just Davis that was affected by the campaign, as his fellow Co-Founder Maynard resigned soon after the first incident, citing similar identity fraud issues. Worse yet, the entire company was due for a massive hit from the Federal Trade Commission, with a gargantuan $12 million fine for deceptive advertising.
In the words of FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz; “In truth, the protection they provided left such a large hole that you could drive a truck through it.” This damning statement was clearly proven by Davis’ troubles who tried to turn the campaign around, stating that “the point of that campaign was to take proactive steps to protect your identity. We were trying to make the point that all it takes is one data breach.”
This pill is a little hard to swallow, given that the campaign was essentially one big brag that their systems were unbreakable.
Acclaim: Virtually Every Campaign
Finally, we have a branch of marketing that, compared to other mediums, is relatively new. Only emerging onto the market in the early 80s, video games have had to deal with advertisers and executives that were fresh to a new genre of entertainment, and so it was inevitable that some unusual marketing campaigns would come out of it; one needn’t look any further than the bizarre adverts the 90s produced to see proof of that.
Whether they were insulting their audience, such as the obnoxious campaign for the failed Tiger Gamecom, or they were baffling their potential partners, like the time Microsoft sent an entourage to accompany Alex Garland’s trip to Universal dressed as the iconic Master Chef, the gaming industry has always had an unusual approach to marketing. None, however, personify lunacy moreso than Acclaim.
Infamous for their borderline-insane marketing campaigns, Acclaim was formed from disgruntled ex-employees of Activision (who in turn came together after leaving Atari as disgruntled ex-employees) that had some pretty radical ideas about how to get their name out there. Sadly, each new release and collaboration would do little to establish the developer as one worth talking about, pumping out subpar or barely passable games to the gaming market.
Regardless of the inability to create truly gripping games, Acclaim was insistent on creating marketing campaigns that left the impression that they’d lost their grip on sanity. Allegedly spearheaded by a man named Steve Perry, Acclaim’s marketing campaigns ranged from the obscene to the utterly obscure. Offering to pay the costs for a loved one’s funeral advert if a game could be advertised on the headstone, telling people they’d pay for speeding tickets on the day of a game’s release and filling bus-stop advert boards with fake blood are just a few of the developer’s saner choices in advertising.
One of the most infamous and insane examples of Acclaim getting the word out for their games was their campaign for Virtua Tennis 2 where they devised a plan involving trained pigeons, spray paint and Wimbledon. It even sparked outrage from the organisers of Wimbledon who, in turn, considered training hawks to counter the marketing campaign. All of their grandiose plans were for nought though as in 2004 they declared bankruptcy. This was partially due to being sued left, right and centre, by parties including Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen as well as their own investors, but it surely wasn’t helped by their name being synonymous with industry-wide ridicule.
The Lessons to Learn
There are many lessons to take away from these colossal mistakes, with several contrasts to be made to successful campaigns. A quick appraisal of these campaigns bring some vital points to mind:
1. Don’t Offer What You Can’t Deliver
The Unlimited AAirpass debacle proves that if you’re going to make a promise, you’ve got to be prepared to stick to it; especially when the stakes are high. American Airlines managed to escape a potential PR nightmare in two ways, neither of which can apply to many companies, and those were: A, the customers that got burnt were millionaires, so not very sympathetic characters, and B, they eventually went bankrupt.
That latter point was probably the best way they escaped facing the music, but it was very much a case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the smouldering fire’. This case was somewhat similar to a campaign run in Russia by the Russian branch of Domino’s, when they essentially had to end up giving hundreds of people hundreds of pizzas for free, for life. They managed to do damage control by imposing restrictions after the campaign’s release, but it didn’t quell the fire too much.
An ideal solution to this issue would be hindsight; plan a campaign accordingly and anticipate every possible result. If you’re offering something too good to be true, remember that a large number of people will still go for it.
2. Make Sure Your Campaign Has the Green Light
The 2007 Boston Mooninite Panic was a classic example of guerilla marketing, yet the headache it caused the city of Boston was undeniably not worth any extra ticket sales they got for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. Thinking about any way that a campaign could be perceived (in this case, as a bomb threat) will help you to make sure you get the right people in the know before embarking on it.
This case isn’t something to point at as ‘truly terrible marketing’ as, after all, thinking outside of the box can be an incredibly helpful marketing exercise; it’s just always important to remember that your campaign can, and often will, reach the eyes and ears of audiences other than the ones you’re reaching out to. It puts a spotlight on how important different reactions to your campaign will be.
3. Remember to Get All the Feedback You Can, Even From External Eyes
Burger King’s many failed campaigns put customers off in very specific ways; some were too boring, others were to chauvinistic, and more were just plain creepy. Standing out from the rest of the crowd is important in a competitive market, but you always have to ask: at what cost?
Showcasing your ideas to more and more people, before undergoing development, can be a vital process that allows others to give their input and shine a light on concepts that you may have not have thought about. A perfect example of how proofreading and taking a second glance can be beneficial was the occasion when Nestle joined Instagram, debuting with a picture that looked like they were supporting an icon synonymous with paedophilia.
With that in mind, perhaps Creepy King wasn’t so bad; but he still scared away a lot of customers, and that’s the message they should have gotten, and acted upon, much earlier in the campaign.
4. Confidence is Good, but Have Some Humility
The infamous LifeLock mistake will forever be a prime example of hubris, whether it’s for the CEO himself or the company at large that was affected. We’re taught that confidence is key, but confidence can be harmful if not handled with care; remembering that a company, and other people’s livelihoods, is on the line might help remind you that making bold, arguably stupid decisions can have serious ramifications.
An almost equally ridiculous case of hubris was the story of John Romero and the legendarily terrible game, Daikatana, in which Romero considered himself not unlike a god and spent years, and a lot of money, making a game that turned out to be more than a disappointment.
Hindsight is 20/20, but self-reflection and patience can yield thoughts and realisations that could potentially save you, your company and even an industry a lot of time, money and face.
5. Think Outside the Box, but Remember That the Box is There For a Reason
They often say that something is a cliche because it’s true, and it’s important to remember that the same applies to tried and trusted marketing campaigns; they’re so often used because they’re reliable and beloved. A general example would be simple promotions like buy one, get one free; it isn’t reinventing the wheel but it’s often a popular campaign. A more industry-relevant example would be showing off a new game’s gameplay during an advert to get people psyched for said game.
Acclaim’s approach to game-based campaigns adhered neither of these classic styles of marketing, instead opting to create shock and drama in hopes that enough people would talk about how crazy and weird their company was. It was optimistic to think that this would then lead to sales, especially when looking at the quality of what they were selling.
Above all else, this may be the best and most important advice there can be for marketing as a whole; make sure that what you’re trying to sell, or what you’re offering to your audience, is worth their time, attention and money. Without something solid to build a campaign around, what’s the point of building one at all?
About the author: Tom Simpkins has written everything from books to business proposals but has found a love for working on articles for a host of different clients. When he’s not writing, Tom’s an avid mixologist, an enthusiastic cook and a hopeless lover of corgis.