With the food industry as competitive as it is, companies regularly think outside the box to stay ahead of the game. Sometimes, this pressure cooker environment can produce moments of marketing genius, destined to go down among the great advertising ideas. Others can leave everyone looking pretty stupid.
With big companies, when something goes wrong, it tends to be spectacular. When you’re a multibillion dollar business, operating all over the world, people tend to notice when you cock up. In hindsight, it’s easy to laugh. We can’t imagine many people found it funny at the time.
1. McDonald’s Olympics
Major sporting events are always a massive draw for advertisers and the Olympics are no exception. In 1984, after a fairly unsuccessful games in 1976 and a boycott in 1980, McDonald’s tried to galvanise a bit of national pride by offering free food if the US won medals in specific events. Unfortunately, the American team smashed it, winning more than double their medal tally from 1976, costing the business millions in free giveaways.
2. Red Lobster’s Crab
Anyone who’s ever been to a fancy restaurant will tell you that crab doesn’t come cheap. Pitting a premium foodstuff against an American appetite, therefore, was always going to be a disaster. In 2003, Red Lobster offered a disastrous “all you can eat” promotion on snow crab legs, just as the ingredient hit an all time high in the marketplace. The result was a $3.3 million loss in just seven weeks.
Tackling racism with your morning coffee is always going to be a tricky tightrope to walk. Not that this deterred Starbucks. Though the idea behind getting people to talk openly about race issues might not necessarily have been an awful one, the internet was quick to point out the problems with and inherent ridiculousness of the plan. It was axed after just a few days
4. Skittles Pride
Big businesses trying to steal the limelight from an oppressed minority rarely ends well. So Skittles proved once again just last year, with their colourless promotion for 2017 pride. Launching their campaign with the slogan “only one rainbow matters this year”, it didn’t take people long to point out that a package of all white sweets might not send the most positive message about unity in the current political climate.
5. Russian Domino’s
Marketing mistakes are not a thing of the past. Last month, Domino’s Russia offered fans free pizza for life if they got a tattoo of the Domino’s logo on a visible part of their body. No one could have predicted the carnage that followed. Within hours, tattoo parlours were swamped with requests for the design, and Domino’s were desperately asking people to stop as they tried to keep the giveaway to a total of 350 people. Needless to say, many tattooed pizza fans were left feeling miffed.
6. McDonald’s Virus
While you might expect to get a virus from McDonald’s food, you might not expect you tech to be affected. Yet that is exactly what happened in 2006. McDonald’s Japan gave away 10,000 free MP3 players which, unbeknownst to customers, were also loaded with a QQPass Trojan Virus - giving hackers access to all personal information as soon as it was plugged in to a computer.
Money has long been the go-to promotional offer for unoriginal advertisers. In the 1990s, however, Coca-Cola took things a little more literally. Instead of giving people a code for claiming a prize, the soft drink giants put random rolls of actual cash, between $1-$500 in random cans - the plan being that they would spring out in a fabulous surprise. Unfortunately, the mechanism didn’t work, the cans leaked and the cash became soggy and unusable.
8. Dub The Dew
We really should have learned by now that asking the public to help name anything is a disaster waiting to happen. Before the days of “Boaty McBoatface”, there was Mountain Dew’s catastrophic plan to have fans name their latest drink. Suggestions at the top of the poll included “Hitler did nothing wrong”, “Dia Beetus” and “Gushing Grannies”. You really can’t trust people to take anything seriously.
It’s easy to be wise after the event. In all of these cases, the creative powers that be probably thought that they were all on to a winner. If nothing else then, these lessons from history teach us that it’s always a good idea to double check with someone before spending millions. They might spot something you haven’t.