Sorry to go all Midwest on yah, but… Geez Louise! Did this year suck, or what? We’d even go so far as to say that if 2020 were a branding campaign, it would end up on this list. Brace yourself, because these are the Worst Brand Failures of 2020.
It’s okay, you can say it. 2020 is the worst year ever. Seriously, we tried to come up with funny jokes for just how bad 2020 was but we had to stop because, in the word’s of our writers…
All jokes aside, 2020 has certainly been a tough year for marketers in every industry. We know this because we ingested hundreds of hours of bad advertising and cringeworthy branding campaigns to bring you this year’s edition of worst brand failures.
Did you know? We make a lot of these. The VisualFizz team considers itself pretty knowledgeable about what makes a great ad campaign, and that means we also what makes a bad ad campaign.
If you’re interested in reading more, check out:
- Brand Fails of 2019 and What You Can Learn From Them
- Brand Fails of 2018 and What You Can Learn From Them
- Brand Fails of 2017 and What You Can Learn From Them
Here are the Worst Brand Failures of 2020, in no particular order because they’re all terrible, really.
Brand Fails of 2020 #1: Kraft Heinz: #RIPeanut
We’ll start with an oldie but a goodie… and by goodie we mean terrible. We’re talking, of course, about Kraft Heinz and the death of Mr. Peanut. Back in January (you know… when we still had hope), Kraft Heniz launched what they hoped would be “the most-talked-about Super Bowl ad ever made“.
They certainly did that, but not in the way they hoped. On January 14, just in time for the Super Bowl, Kraft Heinz released its Planters ad featuring Wesley Snipes and Veep actor Matt Walsh, titled “Road Trip”.
We aim high at VisualFizz, so we’ll leave the low hanging joke about driving a campaign off a cliff to late night comedians, like those at SNL who roasted the snack brand to oblivion for killing off an American icon like Mr Peanut.
Amazingly, we’re not done with this campaign yet. Like a salty phantom, Mr Peanut haunts us from beyond the grave with the Twitter handle “The Estate of Mr. Peanut.”
Tragically, a week after Americans witnessed the death of a beloved American icon, we witnessed another, when Kobe Bryant, his daughter and six others perished in a helicopter crash.
In light of the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, Kraft Heinz canceled the ad and paused the campaign within hours, but they were too slow. Since the Planters social media strategy targeted news outlets, posts about the death of Mr. Peanut appeared side-by-side with posts about the death of Kobe Bryant.
Adding insult to injury, Kraft Heinz aired “Tribute” during Super Bowl LIV, which picks up at Mr. Peanut’s funeral, wherein he is magically reborn as a baby nut, whatever that is.
Just like the rest of the campaign, the rollout of “Tribute” had some flaws. Mr Peanut’s Twitter handle was again changed, this time to “Baby Nut”, but this time it was suspended for violating Twitter’s rules on spam and manipulation.
Believe it or not, the Planter’s campaign continues with #MakeMyBirthdayNuts and another ad featuring a freshly 21 Mr. Peanut attempting to buy alcohol at a bar with his new ID.
The Lesson: We can learn several things from the #RIPeanut campaign. The first is that your campaign can still be successful, even if it’s considered a flop. Among its 7,700 earned media placements, #RIPeanut earned write-ups in The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and The Associated Press, which named it one of the best ads to air at the Super Bowl.
The second lesson we learn from the #RIPeanut campaign is that intensity and diversity of opinion is not always a bad thing. Kraft Heinz stirred the pot by killing Mr. Peanut, but that was their goal. Regardless of whether or not they liked the ad, consumers flocked to social media to talk about it, generating more than 200,000 conversations around #BabyNut and #RIPeanut.
The final thing we can learn from the #RIPeanut and #BabyNut campaigns is that it is incredibly important for marketers to be sensitive to every tragedy, especially those that make national headlines. Kraft Heinz did the right thing by pausing their campaign after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. Their only error was not doing it fast enough.
Brand Fails of 2020 #2: MSF Reinforces Racist Stereotype
The last branding campaign may have been a little weird, but this gaffe by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) shows us that brand fails are not limited to name brands and multimillion dollar Super Bowl ads.
For all you Anglos (English Speakers), Médecins Sans Frontières is an international, medical humanitarian organization commonly known in the U.S. as Doctors Without Borders.
Despite warnings from staff that it reinforced a racist “white saviour” stereotype, the medical aid group aired a $400,000 TV fundraising campaign in Canada that not only offended the international community, but led to an investigation into claims of institutional racism within the organization.
The offending advert featured the REM track Everybody Hurts played over images of crying black children being treated by an all-white team of MSF medics. We’d show the whole thing to you, but MSF had it withdrawn from major platforms after 1,000 current and former staff signed an internal statement decrying the organization for reinforcing white supremacy in its humanitarian work.
The Lesson: Speaking solely about the ad, the lesson we should take from this brand failure is to avoid racist stereotypes at all costs. Though the later investigation into MSF’s institutional racism sheds light on their poor-decision making process, they could have avoided this brand failure if they had simply shown this ad to a focus group prior to launch.
Any focus group worthy of the name would have been diverse enough to point out the blatant racism sewn into every part of this ad. The second lesson we learn from this brand failure is best summed up by Hassan Valji, who resigned his role at MSF due to the ad,
“It is not enough to not be racist any more. You have to be anti-racist. If you have an all-white management team, how can you understand the issue?”
Brand Fails of 2020 #3: Tre’Semme South Africa: “Dry and Damaged”
Okay. So, the whole “white savior” thing looks pretty bad, but so does this campaign by Tresemme South Africa. The online advert features images of African hair labeled as “frizzy & dull” and “dry & damaged” while simultaneously labeling white hair as “normal” and “fine & flat”.
The obvious racism in this advert forced brands like Shoprite, Woolworths, and Pick N Pay to drop Tresemme products, and forced senior executives at Clicks (the online pharmacy that featured the advert) to resign.
A lot can be said about this brand fail, particularly in the areas of cultural sensitivity. Below the obvious racist undertones of this advert lies 50 years of aprtheid in South Africa. Beneath the scars of that brutal history lie several hundred years of colonization on the African continent.
To ignore all of that with an advert about “normal” hair is not only racist, it’s insensitive to historic issues around African hair in South Africa. The BBC reports, “Under white-minority rule [Aparteid], the state used the so-called ‘pencil test’ to decide who was black or mixed-race — depending on how easily the pencil moved through the hair.”
The Lesson: Tresemme probably did not intend their advertisement to be as racist and insensitive as it is. In all likelihood, Tresemme’s branding team did not consider the deeper, cultural significance of calling African hair “frizzy” and “damaged”, especially in South Africa, but that is their mistake.
Brands should always consider the cultural significance of their messaging before they launch a campaign in a different country.
Brand Fails of 2020 #4: EA Targets Kids with Microtransactions
The world of gaming is meant to blur the lines of reality, thus enabling gamers to do things in the virtual world that they otherwise would not be able to do. That being said, at no point in the real or virtual world should your brand push microtransactions at kids.
But that’s exactly what happened when Electronic Arts launched an advert for FIFA Points to children inside a Smyths Toys magazine. The print ad for FIFA 21 suggests fans (children, given the content of the magazine) should purchase FIFA Points to bolster their team and become a footballing success.
Remarkably, this isn’t the first time EA or FIFA have resorted to these questionable tactics. They received criticism for doing the same thing for FIFA 20. In spite of their record, EA released a statement condemning the action and pledging an immediate review of all future media placements.
“We take very seriously the responsibilities we have when marketing EA games and experiences in channels seen by children,” adding, “In spite of this, we’re aware that advertising for FIFA Points has appeared in environments it shouldn’t have. We have been working diligently with Smyths to ensure this advertisement is not distributed in any remaining copies of their 2020 catalogue. We have also undertaken an immediate review of all future media placements and are working to ensure each of our marketing efforts better reflects the responsibility we take for the experience of our younger players.”
The Lesson: There are multiple lessons to be learned from this brand fail, the biggest of which is to avoid using an targeting morally questionable in-game purchasing scheme to target children. The second lesson we learn from EA’s brand failure is to learn from our mistakes. This incident is the second time EA has targeted kids with microtransactions, and it may cost them dearly.
EA now faces lawsuits in France, Belgium, and California, where more than 100 individuals are seeking damages of $5 million or more, alleging that EA not only “relies on creating addictive behaviors in consumers to generate huge revenues,” but that EA’s Ultimate Team Packs “are predatory and designed to entice gamers to gamble.”
Brand Fails of 2020 #5: VW Goes Full Weimar (That’s a History Joke)
If you thought 2020 was done with the racist branding, you obviously didn’t see Volkswagon’s Instagram video advertising the new Golf 8. The video, now withdrawn, features an outsized white hand “flicking” a black man away from the parked VW Golf, into a restaurant named “Little Colonist” in French.
Yeah, it’s pretty bad. But it gets worse when you remember that VW was founded in 1937 by Ferdinand Porsche, who willingly used slave labor from concentration camps to build vehicles in VW’s early years.
The Lesson: Though VW made an obvious mistake with this racist video, the lesson we learn actually pertains to history. Though nobody can hold you responsible for a brand’s sordid past, you are responsible for its future.
If your brand made or makes a mistake, you need to own up to it, acknowledge the outrage, and pledge to make it better. To Volkswagon’s credit, that’s exactly what they did.
“We posted a racist advertising video on Volkswagen’s Instagram channel… We understand the public outrage at this. Because we’re horrified, too,” adding, “On behalf of Volkswagen AG, we apologize to the public at large for this film. And we apologize in particular to those who feel personally hurt by the racist content because of their own history.”
VW took it a step further with a separate statement in which it labeled the video as an “insult to every decent person.” adding, “We’re ashamed of it and cannot explain how it came about. All the more reason for us to make sure we clear this up. And we will make the results and consequences of the investigation public.”
Brand Fails of 2020 Coronavirus Edition: Awful COVID-Themed Commercials to Keep You Up at Night
We’ll take a break from the accidentally racist branding of 2020 (there was a lot of it) and shift to the abhorrently annoying coronavirus commercials still plaguing major media outlets and streaming platforms.
Name brands have been trying to convince us that they care for years, but now, during the age of the coronavirus, it’s just getting old. From Verizon to McDonalds, every brand with a budget is jumping on the coronacoaster to show us that they’re still around to take our money. Case and point…
What started as a reassuring message for customers in quarantine has now devolved into a constant reminder of the coronavirus pandemic. Now instead of finding escape in our favorite shows, we’re met by brands who seem overjoyed to bring us back reality.
Making things worse is the half-hearted efforts by name brands to show solidarity with customers stuck in quarantine. Like this brand fail from McDonalds Brazil, in which they separated the iconic golden arches.
Though innocuous at first, this attempt at solidarity was internationally hated for being insensitive to the dire situation. One Twitter respondent writes, “Dear #mcdonalds: stop changing your logo for every event and actually f?-?-?king DO something. Nobody cares how you’ve reformatted your ‘beloved’ arches.”
The Lesson: The lesson we learn from this seemingly simple, yet remarkably terrible brand failure is the same lesson that most name brands missed with their coronavirus advertising. It doesn’t matter if your target audience is stuck quarantined at home, or risking their lives to save others from a pandemic, your brand needs to be genuine with its messaging.
Though individually, many of the ads we saw from big brands in quarantine weren’t bad, they just fell flat because it was obvious that they were jumping on the bandwagon. This desperate plea for sales during a time of national tragedy not only aggravated consumers, it shone a spotlight on hypocrisy wherever it stood.
Don’t Fail in 2020, 2021, or Beyond – Work with the Pros at VisualFizz
For a brand campaign to be successful, you need to not only appeal to the consumer, but do so in a way that is authentic, genuine, and sensitive to the cultural, ethnic, and historical intricacies of your audience. Hiring the brand experts and social media managers at VisualFizz can give your brand a voice and help you avoid embarrassing brand fails like these. Contact us today.