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It seems that everyone has an opinion about how to achieve a successful marketing campaign.
Brian Halligan, the co-founder and executive chairman of HubSpot (NYSE:HUBS), once opined, “It's not what you sell that matters as much as how you sell it.”
For Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs, the formula to marketing success had a Zen-like simplicity: “Master the topic, the message, and the delivery.”
And for Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos, marketing is a state of continual resonance – he once observed, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
However, there are those who thought they had a better grasp of marketing success than the likes of Halligan, Jobs and Bezos – and they were wrong. For those who enjoy a good laugh at the corporate mistakes of others, here are 10 of the weirdest marketing efforts that resulted in a thudding faceplant for those who cooked up these unlikely strategies.
The Ship That Never Was: During the 1910s and 1920s, the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey became a controversial figure for his advocacy of Black nationalism and his uniquely sloppy business skills – which included selling stocks without a license. He launched the Black Star Line in 1919 as a groundbreaking Black-owned shipping company connecting the U.S. and Africa – and while he was able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, mainly from Black investors, his company acquired three derelict vessels that never crossed the Atlantic.
In 1919, Garvey published a marketing brochure for potential Black Star Line investors featuring a photograph of the Orion, a ship that the company did not own but was negotiating to buy. This was a slight problem – because Garvey was sending our brochures to lure investors by showing them a vessel that his company incorrectly claimed was theirs, he opened himself up to criminal investigation.
Garvey and three other Black Star Line officials were indicted on mail fraud charges. Only Garvey was convicted and he received a five-year prison sentence, which was followed by his deportation to Jamaica. The investors in the Black Star Line lost all of their money and had no avenue for seeking compensation.
You Bought An Edsel?: Arguably the granddaddy of weird marketing campaigns was Ford Motor Co.’s (NYSE:F) 1958 introduction of the Edsel, an automobile that the motor-mad Eisenhower era didn’t want.
Ford had the extraordinary talent of doing everything wrong in the vehicle’s rollout, starting with its awkward-sounding name (it was christened in honor for company founder Henry Ford’s son Edsel, who died in 1943 from stomach cancer) and then extending to its unattractive design (some wisecrackers said the vertical grille looked like someone sucking a lemon) and capping with the rare decision not to test market the car’s concept before introducing it. Having the car introduced in the middle of a recession didn’t help.
Within two years of its introduction, production on the Edsel was discontinued. The relative rarity of surviving vehicles made the Edsel a sought-after collectible among vintage car aficionados, but for marketing experts the word Edsel became synonymous with an expensive instant flop.
Shout Out To The Plus-Size Gals: The history of movie marketing is pockmarked with outlandish and ridiculous promotions, but few were as inane as the efforts to sell the 1975 horror film “Criminally Insane” to a skeptical public.
The central figure of “Criminally Insane” is the cannibal serial killer “Fat Ethel” (played by Priscilla Alden), who was described in the film’s promotional material as “250 pounds of psychopathic fury.” To lure moviegoers into the theaters showing this flick, the film’s producers printed up free posters of Fat Ethel swinging her blood-soaked meat cleaver and encouraged cinema owners to offer free admission to female patrons who weighed 200 pounds or more.
Alas, these tempting entreaties weren’t enough to make the film a box office hit, but it was rediscovered in a 2005 DVD release and gained a cult following, with the late Bill Gibron of DVD Talk hailing it as “so downright depraved, so tantalizing in its turgid storytelling and squalid scenarios that words cannot begin to describe its baneful beauty.”
The Night Chicago Disco Died: Marketing campaigns rooted in hatred are rare, but Chicago radio station WLUP-FM thought it could have fun by tapping into a growing backlash against disco. The station’s reigning deejay, Steve Dahl, promoted an event for July 12, 1979, where he would detonate disco albums brought to Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox – admission to the event was 98 cents for those who brought an album to be destroyed during the pause between a double-header.
Disco Demolition Night became infamous as a marketing stunt that went horribly wrong – the stadium was packed well beyond its capacity, with many of Dahl’s fans sneaking into the venue. Attendees threw their albums from the stands, creating a rain of vinyl hazard, and after the promised demolition thousands of attendees stormed the field and did not leave until riot police showed up. The second game of the double-header was not played and American League President Lee MacPhail ordered it forfeited by the White Sox. Dahl was fired by his station seven months later, but continued his career at other stations with wacky stunts that included having a vasectomy during a live radio broadcast.
The Only Way To Fly: In 1981, financially challenged American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) sought to increase travel on its routes by introducing the AAirpass program that gave passholders a lifetime of first-class travel on any of the carrier’s flights – and it only cost $250,000.
At that time, the U.S. was going through a recession and most Americans didn’t have $250,000 to drop. Only 66 AAirpass memberships were sold, with baseball great Willie Mays and Dell Computer (NYSE:DELL) founder Michael Dell covering the costs. The airline would increase the costs of membership to $600,000 in 1990 and $1 million in 1993.
But by 1994, AAirpass was discontinued – while the quantity of program participants was small, they were also excessively peripatetic and American Airlines found itself losing millions of dollars annually thanks to its AAirpass holders. An attempt by the airline to terminate the program generated negative publicity, forcing the carrier to quietly absorb the costs of this marketing mistake.
We Don’t Care About Herb: In 1985, Burger King attempted to create a national craze with a marketing campaign called “Where’s Herb?”, in which customers who spotted a nerdy-looking character named Herb (played by actor Jon Menick) were encouraged to visit the fast-food eatery and identify that they saw Herb in person.
Burger King created an elaborate back story (he worked in a Wisconsin cheese factory) and tried to gain relevance for the effort by having Herb interviewed on the “Today” talk show and serve as a guest timekeeper during the World Wrestling Federation’s Wrestlemania 2. But the absurdity of the living needle-in-a-haystack campaign coupled with negative publicity when Burger King refused to reward prize money to an 11-year-old New Jersey boy who spotted Herb turned the campaign into a flop. “Where’s Herb?” was canceled after three months and Burger King fired J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency behind the fiasco.
Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty: In 1997, John Stewart Socha was running Audio Computer Information, a Minnesota-based company that produced tutorial tapes for newcomers to the then-burgeoning world of home computing and the Internet. He sought to diversify his endeavors by creating a fundraising product for animal rights and rescue groups. The result was Kitty Kondoms, which he made by scissoring the fingers from rubber gloves and packaging them in a manner similar to popular prophylactic brands.
Not surprisingly, Socha got a lot of media attention. Unfortunately, most of it came from radio shock jocks who had him as a guest in order to perform heavy-handed carnal kitty jokes. Socha was also featured in a trade journal for the industrial rubber manufacturing industry, for no very clear reason.
As for raising funds for the animal organizations, Kitty Kondoms brought in a few dollars. Socha abandoned the project and stayed focused on his core business, leaving the world of sexually active cats to the consideration of others.
An Unclean Idea: In 2016, Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics Ltd. Co. found itself at the center of a global campaign designed to sell its Qioabi brand of laundry detergent.
The company released a commercial that featured a Chinese woman filling her washing machine when a Black man enters the room – he is carrying a small paint bucket and brush and his face has white paint marks. He whistles at the woman, who beckons him over – only to shove a laundry pod into his mouth and then force him into the washing machine. After a few seconds of his yelling while spinning in the machine, the woman opens the washer’s lid and a pale Chinese emerges.
The sponsoring company offered a sorry/not sorry statement after the commercial struck a nerve on social media, stating, “We express our apology for the harm caused to the African people because of the spread of the ad and the over-amplification by the media. We sincerely hope the public and the media will not over-read it.”
Urine Good Health: Americans aren’t the only ones who cook up weird marketing campaigns. In 2017, Sweden’s IKEA furniture retailer came up with a marketing stunt that generated attention in the unlikeliest manner.
IKEA published an advertisement in a Swedish magazine that encouraged women to pee on the advertisement. The magazine publisher worked with the company to create a printed ad that used a technology similar to urine-based home pregnancy tests. In this case, if the test was positive, the advertisement would reveal a special discount on IKEA cribs.
Not surprisingly, the advertisement generated a ton of media coverage. But did the campaign fulfill its goals of selling IKEA cribs? The company never reported the revenue results of this effort, which suggests that generating attention was not synonymous with generating sales.
Social Commentary Via Kendall Jenner: What happens when a long-in-the-tooth brand tries to come across as hip and cutting edge? In the case of a now-infamous 2017 PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP) campaign, it represents an astonishing marketing fail.
In an online commercial running slightly less than three minutes, PepsiCo imagined a multicultural group of photogenic twentysomethings holding a protest march while carrying placards that never quite defined what they were protesting. An unsmiling line of equally multicultural and photogenic police officers watched them in a line designed to block their access down a thoroughfare. In this environment emerges model/social media influencer/Kardashian family bon vivant Kendall Jenner, who emerges from a photo shoot to walk up to the best-looking male cop and hand him a can of Pepsi, which he drinks with a smile while everyone on camera cheers (including a hijab-wearing woman videotaping the incident).
The backlash against this attempt to market Pepsi as the soft drink of the socially conscious generation was harsh and it was immediately withdrawn, with many people accusing the brand of trying to sell soda by trivializing the street protests occurring in response to a series of police shootings of African Americans. The company issued a statement that said, “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
Kendall Jenner’s career did not suffer from the fallout.
Photo: Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police officer facing off against protestors. Courtesy of PepsiCo.