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Olivier Le Moal - stock.adobe.co

5 marketing campaign failure examples

Apple aimed to showcase the new iPad's versatility. Instead, they faced backlash for a thoughtless ad that crushed dreams, marking a notable marketing failure.

Each marketing campaign bears the potential to catapult a product or service into the limelight. However, for every wildly successful rollout, there exist failures that become cautionary tales of miscalculation.

The latest Apple iPad Pro's ad campaign, released at their May 2024 "Let Loose" event, is one recent example. Despite Apple's history of successful advertisements, the effort stumbled, highlighting the difficult balance between creativity and public perception.

Apple's ad portrayed scenes and narratives that felt out of touch with societal sentiments (as detailed below). Such missteps underscore the importance of thorough market research and cultural sensitivity in ad development.

Successful marketing teams adopt a multifaceted approach to campaign planning, including extensive market research, focus group testing and building a diverse team. Coupled with a readiness to adapt and respond to feedback swiftly, the best marketing teams create ad campaigns that captivate their audience and avoid public and costly blunders.

Reasons for marketing campaign failures

Recognizing ad campaign pitfalls like the following helps companies better plan and execute their marketing strategies:

  • Poor timing. Launching a campaign during a crisis or sensitive time makes the message appear tone-deaf. Aligning a campaign with current events and societal mood is essential for its success.
  • Misunderstanding the target audience. Extensive market research fosters a deeper understanding of audience preferences, behaviors and cultural contexts. Without this vital legwork, an ad campaign risks a disconnect between its brand and target audience.
  • Lack of cultural sensitivity. Brands that include diverse perspectives in campaign planning typically avoid offending, alienating or losing potential customers. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad is a case of in-house insensitivity leading to a classic marketing failure. In the ad, Jenner hands a police officer a can of Pepsi, and the protesters cheer, which many argue misrepresents the experiences of protesters and the seriousness of the issues they were protesting.
  • Overconfidence in brand loyalty. Some brands assume their loyal customer base will embrace any change. Coca-Cola's "New Coke" ad proved it's imperative to respect customers' emotional connections with established products or services.
  • Ineffective marketing strategy. Sometimes, the ad's messaging, tone or chosen medium proves inappropriate or ineffective. To reach a broader audience effectively, a well-rounded marketing strategy includes multiple channels, featuring social media and influencer partnerships.

Examples of marketing campaign failures

Here are some marketing campaign failures including what went wrong and how the company handled the initial backlash.

Apple's iPad Pro "Crush" campaign

Apple's recent iPad Pro "Crush" ad depicted a large hydraulic press crushing musical instruments, paints, cameras, books, movie characters, sculptures and more. The ad intended to showcase how many creative mediums cram into their thinnest iPad ever, appealing in theory to writers, filmmakers, photographers, gamers, musicians and others.

However, many described the imagery as representing, in actor Hugh Grant's words, "the destruction of the human experience, courtesy of Silicon Valley." Within two days of the campaign's release, Apple responded with an apology for its "culture-crushing" ad.

Sony PSP's "White is coming" billboard

In 2006 in the Netherlands, Sony promoted the new release of a white-colored version of its PlayStation Portable (PSP) gaming console, posting an image of a white woman grabbing a black woman by the face with "PlayStation Portable. White is coming" on a large billboard.

This very aggressive approach brought cries of racism from American critics, including comments from the president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP chapter. Sony withdrew the ad and apologized, but its accompanying statement said, "Images used in the campaign were intended solely to highlight the contrast between the different colors available for the PSP."

Sony's ad from 2006 for the PlayStation Portable game console.
Sony's ad from 2006 which received a lot of backlash for being insensitive. The ad was to announce the new white Sony PlayStation Portable game console.

Airbnb's "Floating World" email campaign

Airbnb promotes unique vacation ideas or destinations and has changed how travelers find lodging. In the summer of 2017, Airbnb released an email campaign advertising water-themed homes and attractions like houseboats. The messaging focused on travelers spending "a day -- or an entire trip -- without touching dry land," using headlines such as "Stay above water" and "Live aquatic life with these floating homes."

Unfortunately, the campaign rolled out as Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston, displacing many from their homes with extensive flooding. The campaign's poor timing didn't ruin the brand's image, but many called out Airbnb for its mistake.

The company conceded its timing was "insensitive" and apologized. Airbnb then built disaster relief into its brand, proving that properly identified and corrected campaign failures lead to successes like Airbnb's embrace of corporate social responsibility.

Microsoft's "Bing and Decide" campaign

In the early 2010s, nearly everyone used Google to search and calls to "just Google it" became common around anyone with a device. Microsoft attempted to gain market share by heavily promoting its search engine, Bing.

The "Bing and Decide" campaign dented Google's market share, but Microsoft eventually pulled the ads. Since then, Bing has reached as high as a 13% share of internet searches in America. However, that number fell to lower than 8% in 2024.

Levi's AI-generated fashion models

Levi's faced criticism in 2023 for online campaigns described as lazy, problematic and racist. The campaigns included AI-generated fashion models, which deprived real people of the chance to appear in the ads.

Levi's said it intended to "create a more inclusive, personal and sustainable shopping experience" by showcasing diversity in its campaigns. The use of AI models, Levi's noted, allowed shoppers to see different body shapes and skin tones in its clothing.

Following more backlash, Levi's followed up, clarifying that it plans to continue using live, diverse models and AI photoshoots that allow more images of its products on more body types more quickly. Despite Levi's intentions -- and the use of Lalaland.ai, a Black-owned company, in its efforts to create the ads -- the market perception was negative.

Microsoft's iPhone funeral (bonus)

Microsoft makes the list again because, even though it wasn't an intentional marketing campaign, the parade for its Windows Phone went viral, generating lots of PR and ultimately contributing to the product's failure.

In 2010, the Microsoft team was so excited about the launch of its latest smartphone that employees celebrated by having a parade to commemorate the birth of the Windows phone and the "death" of the iPhone. The private procession, complete with a hearse, other floats and employees dressed in funeral attire carrying a large iPhone, drew media attention after photos of the in-house event were shared.

Windows Phone never captured more than 3.6% of the market share in its five-year battle with industry leaders such as iPhone and Android. The Windows Phone Store shut down and product support ended in December 2019.

Mitigating marketing campaign failures

To minimize the risk of marketing campaign failures, companies adopt several successful practices, including the following:

  • Diverse team inclusivity. Including a range of perspectives in the campaign, a team helps identify potentially insensitive or unappealing elements early in the planning process. A diverse team fosters a more robust understanding of different cultural nuances.
  • Comprehensive market research. Conducting detailed research helps marketers understand the target audience's needs, preferences and current societal trends. This insight assists in crafting relevant and timely marketing campaigns.
  • Focus group testing. Before a full-scale launch, testing the campaign with focus groups allows marketers to make necessary adjustments based on real audience reactions.
  • Adaptability and responsiveness. Preparing to adapt the campaign in response to negative feedback can mitigate long-term damage. A prompt and sincere response helps regain customer trust.
  • Leveraging data and analytics. Utilizing data analytics tools and platforms, such as a CRM, provides real-time engagement and feedback. Customer data and interactions give immediate insights into campaign performance and enable quick adjustments.

Learning from past marketing fails

Marketing campaign failures, while often costly and embarrassing, offer valuable lessons. Brands that analyze and acknowledge their errors and introduce practices to mitigate risks ultimately drive business growth.

By focusing on cultural sensitivity, timely execution and audience-centric strategies, businesses of any size can navigate the complexities of marketing and avoid the tarnish of advertising failures.

Griffin LaFleur is a MarketingOps and RevOps professional working for Swing Education. Throughout his career, Griffin has also worked at agencies and independently as a B2B sales and marketing consultant.

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