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Latest Marketing Disasters: What Not To Do

Any publicity is not always good publicity.  Some marketing campaigns and stunts have not only fallen flat in the past couple of years, but some have even been quite embarrassing for the companies that rand them.  Whether they were due to bad luck or bad decision-making, some marketing stunts and some simple advertising campaigns gone awry turned into major PR nightmares.  Here are a few of the most recent disasters in marketing.

Apple Spends a Fortune to Release U2 Single as a Gift

Time Cook, the CEO of Apple, made the decision and the announcement, in September of 2014, that every single iTunes subscriber would receive a free “gift”: U2’s special surprise recording of their first album in 5 years.  Although the new release would be completely free for all iTunes subscribers, it was not free for Apple, who paid 100 million dollars to have the album given free to all of its loyal customers.

But the decision’s negative consequences did not stop there.  Customers who received this “gift” turned out to be not so pleased, since the U2 music had been loaded onto their devices without permission.  Many of these young Apple customers did not even know who the band U2 was, and were utterly confused and displeased to see such an item appear in their music data.  An American rapper even said that finding of the U2 album in his device was like waking up to a pimple or learning you had an STD.

Finally, after outrage from customers after the unwanted “gift,” Apple developed a special removal button so that Apple device owners could finally remove the unwanted album.  Bono himself, lead of the band U2, even issued an embarrassed apology.

Analysts agree that the price for the gift-release, at 100 million dollars, was not significant for Apple, who had 155 billion in reserve at the time.  However, the disaster did make a significant negative impact on Apple’s reputation with their in-crowd customers, and it was a decidedly poor marketing decision.

Walmart’s “Fat Girl Costumes”

One of the most memorable branding disasters from the last two years was a Halloween nightmare in the form of a very poor branding decision by Walmart.   Walmart always provides a wide range of products choices, and its Halloween costume department is no different, offering a variety of different looks every October.

However, Walmart’s marketing and branding decision-makers took it a little too far and ended up offended nearly everyone who spotted one of their “Fat Girl Costumes” on the promotional website in 2014 during the Halloween season.  The company acted relatively quickly to take down the offensive product, but they had already insulted the majority of their customer base with the frightening misstep in marketing.

US Airways Pornographic Auto-Response

US Airways went out of their way to create an auto-response email to be sent to customers who sent in complaints via Twitter.  When a customer complained on Twitter, they automatically received an automated tweet from US Airways, stating that the company appreciated the feedback, etcetera.  This is a good marketing strategy, since it can make displeased customers feel that they are at least being acknowledged personally via social media by a large company that does not usually talk to customers one-on-one.

However, US Airways did not get this strategy exactly right, since the auto-tweet also contained a pornographic image.  Once a tweet is out, especially a disastrous tweet accidentally sent out by a world-wide corporation, that tweet can never be taken out.  The offensive tweet was retweeted hundreds of times by the time US Airways even realized what had transpired.  This mistake just goes to show that you have to pay close attention to every move you make to make sure you don’t mess up—and avoid pornography— especially in social media marketing.

Lenovo’s New $279-Dollar Computer

The computer manufacturer Lenovo mistakenly offered a brand-new laptop model on their website in Canada for the low price of $279.00, when the laptop actually cost $1,400.  Thousands of customers in Canada were extremely disappointed when Lenovo realized what had happened and cancelled all of their orders, but the marketing disaster did not end there.  Lenovo Canada did not remove the mispriced laptop for a full two days after the mistake was realized.

The most embarrassing part of this marketing snafu for Lenovo is the simple fact that they are a computer company, should not require two days to remove a flawed ad from the company website, since they have should, theoretically, have a pretty good IT department at their disposal.  Customers who had purchased the computer at the mistake price began a petition that acquired 6,000 signatures, but the computer manufacturer only offered the displeased thousands a $100 discount credit each.

Still more disastrous, Lenovo advertised another product in China for a mistakenly low price.  Lenovo marketed a tablet, which cost $5000, for 50% off accidentally.  Luckily for the customers in China, Lenovo actually provided the tablet at the advertised low price, unlike in Canada.  110,000 customers received the tablet at the amazingly-discounted price.

Malaysian Air

We wrap up with the most disastrous marketing failure of the last two years, which was perpetrated by the airline, Malaysian Airlines, in 2014.  Malaysian air had recently lost two planes full of passengers in two very public airplane crashes.  Malaysian Airlines should have stayed away from anything death-related for a long time while building their reputation and trust back up after the two tragedies that had cost hundreds of passengers their lives.

But Malaysian Airlines somehow momentarily forgot about the major tragedies, and opted to advertise a “My Ultimate Bucket List Contest.”  Calling the customers’ attention back to mortality and death was not a wise decision for this Airline that had so recently lost two planes full of people so tragically, and most saw the advertisement as very inconsiderate and in poor taste.


Marketing definitely requires creativity and innovation, but all of the marketing disasters above represent the fact that simple good sense also goes a long ways in advertising.

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About Sean Donahoe

Sean is one of the most recognized industry leaders in business and marketing. As a popular speaker, author, consultant he has helped over 50,000 students world wide find success in their businesses and has consulted with Fortune 500 companies and businesses of every size grow and thrive...

One comment

  1. Great article Sean!

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