The Lowest Moments in Advertising

The most offensive, most tasteless and downright dumbest ads of the last decade

In a world full of forgettably bad ads, how do a few manage to be memorably bad? Forgettably bad ads have small ideas, if any. A memorably bad ad takes a big idea gone wrong. It also takes a blind spot that prevents the people who were clever enough to have the big idea from perceiving that it has indeed gone wrong.

You know the ads. They are the ones clearly intended to produce uproarious laughter but instead elicit a groundswell of groans. The ones meant to be poignant that are actually perturbing. The ones that make such audacious attempts at grasping for attention, they cross the line of decency and taste and, at times, truth in advertising. The ads that leave consumers screeching, “Make it stop!” and members of the agency community shaking their heads and asking, “What were they thinking?” The ones that, in hindsight, should never have been made.

We reviewed the most controversial creative work of the last decade and chose the 10 that made the most indelible impression. Topping the list is Calvin Klein’s notorious 1995 campaign that showed prepubescent teens in their underwear. Fashion companies often stumble toward the cutting edge – and when that’s packaged with thinly veiled attempts at social consciousness, as seen in ads from Benetton and Kenneth Cole, everyone loses, including the causes the work is trying to “help.” But even the most mainstream and well-respected marketers have made some deluded decisions. Some might argue that any talk value generated by a brand’s advertising is beneficial, but it can come at a hefty price.

1: Calvin Klein / in-house / 1995

Was it the deep, lecherous voice of the off-camera interviewer asking the kid to take off his shirt or the fresh-from-the-bus-station look of the curly-haired male waif in underwear who was his prey? Or maybe it was the porn-set-style bad lighting, dirty purple carpet and rec-room paneling. Either way, after 15 years of making ads that stretched the sexual envelope, Calvin Klein was forced to pull its CK Jeans campaign under threat of criminal charges from the FBI and the Justice Department. Reportedly inspired by an editorial spread in Italian Vogue that was an homage to 1960s porn, Klein hired the photographer, Steven Meisel, to shoot something similar for CK Jeans. The TV and print campaign showed the same bevy of nubile boys, as well as underage female models, lying with their denim skirts hiked up, revealing their white panties. The kids appeared trapped, submitting to the orders of older men. No matter how homoerotic or kinky Klein’s ad scenarios were previously, none had so blatantly eroticized children. “This campaign will quite possibly appeal to pedophiles,” said the American Family Association’s Frank Russo at the time, calling for a boycott. He was joined by several TV stations and the New York Transportation Authority, which had the ads stripped off buses. Still, it was not until the Justice Department threat that Klein relented, protesting disingenuously that the images had merely tried to show “the real strength of character and independence E [of youth today].” Last week a Calvin Klein rep would not comment; Meisel could not be reached. – Barbara Lippert

2: Just for Feet / Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications, Rochester, N.Y. / 1999

The concept: Just for Feet employees are “so concerned about people’s feet, they’ll do anything to help out,” says one creative who worked on the campaign. Set in Kenya, this spectacularly foolish Super Bowl spot shows a barefoot black man running through the wilderness, tracked by the “JFF Patrol” in a Humvee. One member of the team hands him a cup of water – which, as we’ve seen, is spiked with knockout drops. The runner falls unconscious, and the Patrol puts a pair of Just for Feet on him. He wakes up and lets out an anguished cry of “Nooo!” The spot ends with him trying to shake off the shoes. “We wanted someone who would run barefoot, and that’s obviously Kenyans – they’re famous for that,” says the creative. “Unfortunately, people have a lot of sensitivity around that idea: going against someone’s free will and putting on shoes.” Alas, it did not dawn on the agency that there’s something amiss in the image of the Great White Hunter tracking a black African and subjecting him to the sort of catch-and-release better suited to a wild beast. And implying Africans need help from do-gooding outsiders is asking for trouble. Soon the backlash began, and the client became the first to sue its agency for malpractice; Saatchi countersued. Later that year Just for Feet went out of business. A Saatchi rep said the shop doesn’t comment on matters that involve litigation. – Mark Dolliver

3: Kenneth Cole / in-house / 2001

In the emotional days following 9/11, a lot of people said a lot of dopey things. So did a number of advertisers. On the whole, though, consumers were inclined to make allowances for such lapses. Sure, many ads were mawkish, but a lot of us had our mawkish moments that autumn. As for ads that were clumsily self-serving in their allusions to the attacks, it was almost comforting to see normal life – in this case, normal cheesiness – reassert itself. Still, a few ads with 9/11 themes were conspicuous for their poor taste. What grated about Kenneth Cole’s “God Dress America!” billboard (posted later that fall) was its smart-alecky tone. This was a time, you’ll recall, when exceptional numbers of Americans were saying and singing “God Bless America” in a serious, irony-free way. It was a way both to find comfort and to express solidarity with compatriots. With its too-clever-by-half play on that phrase, Cole set itself apart from the unfashionable herd and implicitly made light of their earnest faith. Whatever one thinks of Cole’s ads in normal times, this was not a good moment for an ad with such hipper-than-thou overtones. Of course, Cole has always cultivated an air of irreverence, which is perfectly reasonable for a fashion marketer. The catch is, this links the brand and its core audience to a cultural milieu that has little use for God. One suspects the only sort of worship the typical fashionista indulges in is self-worship. So, when Cole suddenly dragged God into an ad, it was hard not to feel the brand was acting in bad faith. That the ad cites the Twin Towers Fund is only a gratuitous reach for philanthropic cover (Cole was part of a wider industry effort to raise money via Fashion for America T-shirts). “Kenneth Cole is known for social activism, using words in ads to speak his mind,” a rep says, noting the company received positive and negative feedback. “Kenneth Cole absolutely felt it was time for humor. In some, the ads invoked the reaction of people smiling. We needed that.” – MD

4: Benetton / in-house / 2000

“Ooh, transgressive!” That’s the reaction Benetton probably expected when it created a fat ad supplement featuring death-row prison inmates. After all, an outlaw sensibility has long been a fixture of fashion advertising, and who’s more of an outlaw than a convicted killer? But in using actual killers as props for publicizing itself, the clothing company proved sorely lacking in taste and proportion. The format of the piece – celeb-style photographs plus respectful Q&As – glamorized its subjects even while exploiting them. (It ran as an “outsert” with the February 2000 issue of the would-be-glamorous Talk magazine.) As for the victims of the 26 inmates, they didn’t merit a mention. One didn’t need to feel outraged by this exercise (though many people were) to find it spectacularly tacky. Ah, but wasn’t Benetton situating itself on the fashionable side of the death-penalty debate? Yes, but while there are plausible reasons to oppose capital punishment, arguing that killers are really quite sympathetic figures isn’t one of them. Finally, like a lot of bad literature, fine art and so on, the work had the bonus effect of casting a bad light over the artist’s previous oeuvre. We’d cut Benetton some slack with its earlier efforts to shock (as in one ad that featured a dying AIDS patient and his family) on the off chance that the ads had some social utility. But with the shallowness of the death-row extravaganza in front of us, we retrospectively thought worse of Benetton’s other efforts. How’s that for a bad day’s work? Benetton declined comment. – MD

5: Nike / Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore. / 2000

Even creative powerhouses get it wrong sometimes. “Purely and simply, we made a mistake,” read a Nike statement about an ad for the Nike ACG Air Goat that ran in several regional and national outdoor magazines in October 2000. “We offer a sincere apology to anyone who was offended by that ad, and we have immediately pulled it from all publications that have not already gone to print.” What kind of work would elicit this response from the Beaverton, Ore., company? A doozy. The copy-heavy ad promised the shoe would help the runner avoid running into trees and becoming a “drooling, misshapen non-extreme trail-running husk of my former self. Forced to roam the earth in a motorized wheelchair with my name, embossed on one of those cute little license plates you get at carnivals or state fairs, fastened to the back.” Consumers and disability-advocacy groups were outraged. Nike said it was “examining [its] internal approval system,” and Dan Wieden, co-founder of longtime Nike agency Wieden + Kennedy, also issued a wholehearted apology. “We have stepped over the line with this advertisement, and there is no excuse for it. We have hurt a group of people for whom we have enormous admiration,” he said. “For myself personally and for this advertising agency, I deeply apologize. I only wish there were a way to run the clock backwards.” It was the second blow in a bad month for both agency and client, which had pulled a “Why sport?” ad that ran during the Winter Olympics after critics deemed the depiction of a woman running from a Jason-like attacker to be misogynistic. – Mae Anderson

6: Fox Sports Net / Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York / 2002

Qualities parents look for when scouting out babysitters? Kind, responsible, mature, nurturing. Not surprisingly, ear-biter who threatens to eat children is not one of them. So why did Fox Sports Net run an ad for its Best Damn Sports Show Period featuring heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson as a babysitter? To prove that athletes will do anything to get on the show. In the commercial, Tyson sings a lullaby to an infant as the father, host John Kruk, heads out the door. The spot ends with Tyson making his appearance on the show and the tagline, “Finally, a sports show athletes really want to be a part of.” Courting controversy is nothing new for Fox, but this ad not only shrugs off Tyson’s loaded rap sheet for laughs, it embraces it. Tyson, a convicted rapist, is also notorious for biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear and threatening to “eat the children” of rival Lennox Lewis. Neal Tiles, a Fox Sports Net rep, says Tyson landed in the spot simply because he was going to be a guest on the show. “We understand why people may have been offended,” Tiles says. “But that wasn’t our intention. He’s still an active athlete in sports. We weren’t trying to be controversial.” The promo ran for three days before it was pulled in response to viewer complaints. – Lindsey Myers

7: Midas / Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York / 2002

Boobs sell beer. They also sell cars, soft drinks and burgers. Last year, Cliff Freeman and Partners tried to use them to sell mufflers. Can you say “backfire”? The Midas spot, which broke about five months after the shop secured the account, featured an elderly woman standing in front of two Midas employees. When one of them describes the lifetime guarantee for Midas’ shocks and struts, the woman is ecstatic. “Lifetime guarantee, that’s great! What can you do with these?” she asks, flashing her tatas. The client yanked the spot after less than three weeks. “It did not have a positive impact on retail sales,” notes Bob Troyer, Midas’ director of corporate affairs. The shop “used humor as a breakthrough technique,” Troyer says. “But instead of laughs, the ad generated a considerable amount of negative attention from Midas constituents.” Midas had lowered its target audience to 18-54, based on advice from the agency (it has since turned back to the 25-54 demographic). “In hindsight, the ad may have been too provocative,” says former cd Eric Silver. “But let me ask you this: Midas has been in business for approximately 50 years. Tell me one other Midas spot you remember.” Cliff Freeman’s relationship with Midas is coming to a close: Although invited, it is not participating in a review for the creative portion of the $40 million account. – Jennifer Comiteau

8: Toyota / Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif. / 2001

It was a small campaign – postcards dispensed at bars and restaurants in six cities – but it caused a big stink. One of three in a series promoting the RAV4 SUV, the card is a closeup shot of an African American smiling, with a gold version of the Toyota model adorning one tooth. “This ad depicts a male, African American mouth, exaggerated lips, white, pearly teeth and a gold Toyota emboldened on the tooth. All that is missing is the watermelon,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the time on behalf of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. The agency says the concept played off a decorative form of “tooth art.” A rep for Toyota Motor Sales explains the series was meant to “communicate RAV4 styling to a youthful, fashion-conscious audience.” (The other cards show an RAV4 imprinted on a jeans rivet and silhouetted in the eye of a peacock feather.) Jackson, however, asserted that the image caused “widespread outrage and indignation” within the African American community. (Jackson had also protested a 1999 Saatchi ad for Toyota Corolla that ran in Jet with the line, “Unlike the boyfriend, Toyota gets up in the morning.”) The “tooth art” was not universally panned – 74 percent of 1,503 respondents to an Adweek poll said the ad was not offensive – but Toyota pulled the postcard and issued an apology. Three months later the automaker announced it would spend $8 billion over 10 years on a diversity plan that includes hiring more minority ad agencies. Said then-Saatchi L.A. president Scott Gilbert: “I think we can all dial up our sensitivity meters and learn from this.” – Ma

9: Nuveen Investments / Fallon, Minneapolis / 2000

This Super Bowl spot raised the bar on emotional manipulation. The point – the future holds exciting promise – was lost to the powerful image of Christopher Reeve rising out of his wheelchair and walking. “In the future, so many amazing things will happen in the world,” a voiceover says. “What amazing things can you make happen?” The reaction was visceral and immediate. The ad was called “exploitative” and “creepy,” and some disabled viewers condemned it for raising false hopes. Advocacy groups received numerous calls from people who thought Reeve had been cured. Adding to the confusion was the fact that Nuveen, a Chicago investment firm, had no connection to medical research; the agency was simply showing what wealth might accomplish. “It was very polarizing. Some people absolutely loved it, and some people hated it, but we assumed that that was coming,” says David Lubars, president and ecd of Fallon North America. “The idea was to get a quiet and sleepy company immediately on the radar.” A Nuveen rep says the client was “pleased” with the attention, explaining that, “We thought it was important to raise dialogue on the meaning of wealth.” (Nuveen not only stuck with the shop, but St. Paul Cos., Nuveen’s parent, shifted its account to Fallon last year.) Reeve defended the ad but said he understood the concern. “It was not an irresponsible commercial,” he told Adweek at the time. “Time had an editorial condemning me for raising false hope. It was written by a journalist who had been in a wheelchair for 22 years – and I can understand his cynicism. After that much time in a wheelchair, how can one dare to hope?” – MA

10: Sony Pictures Entertainment / in-house / 2001

“Monster gaffe!” “One of the biggest marketing screwups of the year – or any year!” “You won’t want to try this kind of stunt again and again!” The jokes got old, but David Manning didn’t. The man identified on movie posters as a reviewer for The Ridgefield Press enjoys eternal youth – because he is fictional. In June 2001, under questioning from Newsweek, Sony Pictures admitted its marketing department had invented Manning (confirming suspicions that anyone who considered Rob Schneider’s The Animal to be “another winner!” had to be, on some level, nonhuman). Overnight, Manning went from poster personality to a poster boy for deceptive advertising. Sony acted quickly. Declaring itself “horrified” by the transgression, it suspended two staffers for a month without pay. It also paid $325,000 to the state of Connecticut, home to the real Ridgefield Press, after the state launched an investigation into a potential violation of its Unfair Trade Practices Act. Connecticut’s consumer protection commissioner summed it up this way: “What Sony did was like having a chef pose as a food critic and then give his own restaurant four stars.” Instead of four stars, all Sony ended up with was two thumbs down. – Tim Nudd