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

Getty Images

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’

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