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Five Marketing Campaigns That Went Horribly Wrong

By Barbara Beauregard   |    May 1, 2015   |    9:49 AM

Being a marketing guru in the modern age is kind of scary when you think about it. Sure, quirky humor and offbeat paces can quickly send an advertising campaign viral. But social media is a double-edge sword that can quickly turn an advertising campaign into an unmitigated disaster. For every ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, Old Spice's “The Man You Could Smell Like," or Android's “Be Together, Not the Same" campaign, there's a disaster waiting in the wings, whether it's merely the flop of Axe Body Spray or a giant popsicle melting in the middle of New York City. A creative and innovative marketing campaign can look great on paper but overlooking critical details can quickly cause them to backfire. Let's take a look at five advertising and marketing campaigns that went horribly wrong and think about how they might have gone differently.

#5 The Cleveland Balloon Disaster

As exemplified above by the ALS Challenge, nonprofits often come up with creative marketing ideas because they're on a budget. That also means that when they make mistakes, they're often met with horrible results. That was the case with Balloonfest '86, where a United Way branch in Cleveland, Ohio decided to make its mark by releasing 1.5 million balloons over the city. They floated right into a cool rainstorm and smothered the city with a torrent of balloons, causing traffic accidents, injuries to both people and animals, and at least two deaths.

What could have gone better: Chaos isn't always easy to predict, but integrating appropriate corporate social responsibility practices, corporate sustainability, and environmental awareness would have gone a long way towards not creating a balloon apocalypse in Cleveland, Ohio.

#4 Rock n' Roll Calls Dr. Pepper's Bluff

Remember that time when Axl Rose sat on Guns n' Roses' Chinese Democracy album for almost a decade? Dr. Pepper sure does. As a publicity stunt in 2008, the company offered a free can of Dr. Pepper to every American if the album came out before the end of the year. Guns n' Roses delivered, and Dr. Pepper was forced to backpedal because it never made the effort to ensure that it could deliver on its word. After Axl sued the company, they backpedaled again, saying “We are disappointed that Gn'R's lawyers are turning a fun giveaway into a legal dispute."

What could have gone better: Don't lie to your customers for the sake of a gimmick. It's a lousy way to treat people and it violates trust in your brand.

#3 Coca-Cola Baffles Its Customers and Fuels Conspiracy Theories

The 80s were a strange time, filled with big hair, blistering guitar solos, and the absolute train wreck that was New Coke. Introduced in 1985, the company briefly replaced the original formula that had been a success for nearly a century. Because of a visceral public backlash, New Coke was eventually replaced with the old formula, now branded as “Coca-Cola Classic." New Coke shambled on for a few years as Coke II, but it was definitely a defining moment in the “Cola War." This fiasco even led to some unfounded but surprisingly stubborn rumors that the campaign was a massive marketing stunt-slash-conspiracy to boost brand recognition.

What could have gone better: Market testing has its time and place but it's more important to trust your brand and your customers.

#2 Who's Quickster?

Netflix was on top of the world in 2011, battering both Blockbuster and mom-and-pop video stores with their mail order DVD rental service. Then they decided to enter the streaming market with “Qwikster." The move to split the company between mail order DVDs and streaming made branding way too complicated and resulted in a 60% price increase for customers who wanted both services. This price-hike-train-wreck ultimately resulted in the loss of 800,000 subscribers and a 77% drop in stock prices.

What could have gone better: Businesses need to remain nimble and alert to stay relevant, making sure to communicate changes to customers clearly instead of blindsiding them. Showing gratitude and loyalty to current customers is just as important as growing the customer base.

#1 Don't Like U2? Too Bad: You Own A U2 Album Now.

In more recent news, Apple dropped a music bomb on its customers in 2014 when it announced that all half-a-billion ITunes customers would receive a copy of U2's new album, Songs of Innocence, for free. The “gift," which was estimated to cost Apple a cool $100 million, went over like, well, a lead zeppelin. Many younger users didn't even recognize the band while privacy advocates railed against implementation of forced consumerism.

What could have gone better: There are lots of takeaways from this fiasco. First, Apple should have offered an incentive to customers to take action to get a copy of Songs of Innocence. Secondly, they could have provided information to their customers in advance of the release. Finally, even a company at Apple's level shouldn't use fanfare to cover up mediocrity. Transparency will always go over better with customers than ornate flourishes.