10 Notable Brand Blunders From 2019

How do well-financed, socially savvy corporations make such stupid mistakes?

Elon Musk, Nike shoes, WeWork, Santa sweater and Amazon protesters
Elon Musk joined Nike, WeWork, Walmart and Amazon on our list of the year's top gaffes by brands. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Getty Images, Nike, Walmart
says adweek 2019 in review in a blue sparkly diamond

It’s easy to hate on brands. Today’s mega corporations probably send their labor offshore, while likely paying seven-figure salaries to top executives and booking untold millions in profits. And when those corporations make a mistake, lambasting them becomes a kind of sport for the rest of us. Frankly, why shouldn’t it?

Nowadays, companies employ entire armies of focus groups, spin doctors, consultants and PR people. It follows that the suits really ought to know the fundamentals, including how to make an apology, how to test a product before unveiling it, and how not to send a callous tweet. Still, every year invariably yields its batch of corporate gaffes. This year was no exception. We can’t possibly fit all the bungles, but below are 10 of the better ones.

Ancestry’s family tree of shame

As Adweek pointed out at the start of 2019, racially tone-deaf ads could be all but eliminated if only more people of color sat in the corner offices of brands and agencies. But until that day comes, we’ll have ads like the one Ancestry.com dropped in April.

Titled “Inseparable,” the Antebellum-themed spot featured a white landowner trying to convince a black woman to “escape to the North” with him, where “we can be together.” Presumably intended to spotlight the fact that our family trees are full of surprises, the video (via Anomaly) conveniently skirted any number of incommodious issues—slavery and rape, to name two. “When I saw this ad, it honestly made the hairs on my arm stand up,” historian and author Daina Ramey Berry told NBC. “That’s how bad it is.” Plenty of people agreed, taking to Twitter to say as much. Ancestry pulled the spot shortly afterwards.

Taxpayers, Amazon needs your help

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Let’s set aside the fact that Amazon made $11 billion in profits last year and paid zero federal taxes on it. If any company has the cash to build a new corporate campus, this is the one. Yet when the Seattle-based online behemoth went shopping in 2018 to find a location for its second headquarters, it essentially invited cities across America to compete over how fat a tax rebate they could offer.

Cities that couldn’t afford to be generous didn’t make the final cut of 20. In the end, Amazon chose two cities: Arlington, Va., and New York City. While Virginia’s $740 million offer was plenty high, New York taxpayers were on the hook for $3.5 billion—money that theoretically wouldn’t be available to fund civic needs like public transit or police salaries, infuriating many New Yorkers by February of this year. Simply put, accepting corporate welfare didn’t look good for Amazon. Nor did its plans to build an executive heliport next to a sprawling public-housing project where most of the residents use food stamps. The company made itself look even worse when, facing a wave of popular opposition to the project, Amazon dumped New York (and on Valentine’s Day, no less.) Sure, HQ2 would have created jobs and tax revenues. But as critics pointed out, plenty of other companies in the city do that without any handouts.

Hallmark’s same-sex wedding snafu

Most observers believe that the conservative advocacy group One Million Moms (a division of the American Family Association) does not have a million members. But this year it clearly did have the power to scare the Hallmark Channel.

The trouble began earlier in December when wedding-planning platform Zola tried to advertise on the channel with four spots. Hallmark refused to run the two ads depicting same-sex couples, but left the heterosexual couples in. Following a predictable hail of criticism, Hallmark Cards CEO Mike Perry acknowledged it had made “the wrong decision.” Still, many Americans wondered why it was so hard for the company to make the right decision in the first place.

Chase Bank’s ‘poor shaming’

According to a 2018 report from New York State Comptroller, the average Wall Street salary was $422,500. That’s a wee bit higher than the median of just over $47,000 that the rest of us earn. So if you happen to control the Twitter account for an outfit like JPMorgan Chase, you might want to steer clear of criticizing the working stiff.

Alas, in April, that is exactly what didn’t happen when Chase corporate tweeted a snarky message suggesting that customers’ low balances might be due to extravagant spending, such as buying a cup of coffee and taking an Uber. As expected, America pounced, accusing Chase of “poor shaming.” For her part, Sen. Elizabeth Warren furnished Chase with her own reason why Americans had low balances: “We lost our jobs/homes/savings but gave you a $25B bailout.” Thirty minutes later, Chase’s tweet disappeared—along, perhaps, with the last vestiges of its good reputation.

Boeing’s 737 Max 8 ‘apology’ was a max misstatement

“Boeing had a bad year” is the understatement of 2019. Ever since two crashes of its 737 Max 8 planes killed 346 people, the storied aircraft manufacturer has been cowering under charges that a problem with its own software forced the doomed aircrafts into their fatal dives—and that pilots were not warned about it. So it was pretty clear that Boeing owed the flying public an apology at the very least. And did it make one? Well, no.

In October, days before now former CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s scheduled appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee, the company took out full-page ads in major newspapers including the New York Times and USA Today stating that “we mourn those whose lives were lost” and that “we will always remember.” The tactic might have been sound PR policy (an apology might have represented a liability in court for the company), but the gesture felt slick and calculated—and also useless, since the CEO wound up apologizing before Congress anyway.

Elon Musk’s shattering experience

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Live demos are a risky proposition, as anyone who remembers Steve Jobs trying to pull up the New York Times homepage during the iPhone 4’s 2010 debut knows. Brand-fail history repeated itself in November, when Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s new Cybertruck, a Blade Runner-inspired stainless-steel tank whose futuristic amenities include shatterproof windows. Or not.

“Hey Franz,” Musk called to Tesla’s design head, Franz von Holzhausen, “could you try to break this glass, please?” Von Holzhausen tried and succeeded, shattering the $39,900 vehicle’s windows by throwing some steel balls at them. Musk later tweeted: “Guess we have some improvements to make before production haha.”

WeWork? Yeah, that didn’t work

Oh, where to even begin? There was the attempt by this workspace-sharing company (which is to say, a real-estate company) to position itself as a tech company­—a claim investors didn’t buy. There was the summertime IPO that investors didn’t buy, either. There was that $47 billion valuation that turned out to be more like a $5 billion valuation. And there was the third-quarter loss of $1.3 billion. Oh, and don’t forget reports of founder Adam Neumann’s compulsory tequila shots and toke-a-thons aboard the company jet—reports that helped lead to Neumann’s $1.7 billion golden parachute while investor Softbank tried to clean up the mess. By laying off 2,400 employees. So, yeah, not a good year for WeWork.

Nike’s revolutionary blunder

One more for the Racially Insensitive file: In July, Nike—which had generally scored big by joining with sidelined NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick—rolled out its Air Max 1 USA running shoe, complete with a heel that bore an American flag. What was the trouble? Well, the flag was the so-called Betsy Ross model, the one with 13 stars arranged in a circle on the blue field. The Second Continental Congress had approved that design on July 4, 1777—when between 6 million and 7 million African slaves were in American captivity.

Kaepernick did Nike a solid by giving the company a heads up on the problem (including that white supremacist groups had appropriated the Revolutionary War-era flag), though any number of angry consumers would doubtless have done it anyway. Nike pulled the shoe “based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend.”

Norwegian harbors regrets

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Operators of cruise ships are usually happy when passengers line up in the lounge for a video. Not so for the management of the Norwegian Star, which took note of a video in October showing chanting customers holding up letters that spelled “We Want Refunds” after bad weather forced the ship to cancel visits to the “mystical fjords” the itinerary promised, then insult turned to injury after the kitchen began serving three-day-old food and toilets stopped working. Additional Twitter moments included a “behind the scenes” tour of the ship punctuated by a visit to the laundry room, and passengers booing the captain. With a near-mutiny in the offing via social media, one might think Norwegian would begin issuing refunds in a hurry. Instead, disgruntled passengers were offered a 25% discount—on future Norwegian cruises.

Walmart feels the heat over sweater

It’s hard to online retailers to police everything that third-party sellers decide to list on their sites. But the cost of failing to do it was in evidence in November when Walmart came under fire over Santa Claus doing cocaine. At least, that’s what a Christmas sweater for sale by a vendor called Fun Wear appeared to show. There was ol’ St. Nick, holding a snorting tube and seated before three white lines on the table, along with a caption that read, “Let It Snow.”

For shoppers who might have missed the reference, the item description clarified things: “We all know how snow works. It’s white, powdery and the best snow comes straight from South America.” Surprisingly or not, the offending ecommerce site was Walmart’s Canadian one, and it was Walmart.ca that hastily pulled the item and told shoppers that the coked-up gift did “not represent Walmart’s value and have no place on our website.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.