May 11, 2021 by Jason Pittock | 9 min reading time

Today’s marketers face enormous creative challenges when it comes to designing and promoting print advertisements. Let’s face it, you’ve probably seen millions of print ads and commercials over the course of your lifetime. You can probably think of a few memorable ads right off the top of your head. And you can probably think of at least a couple controversial print advertisements too

What makes ads and commercials memorable? Commercial ads have more than one purpose. Sure, ads are intended to inform, but they’re also intended to arouse some kind of emotion that propels viewers to take some sort of action like:

  • Buying a product
  • Using a service
  • Donating to a cause
  • Preventing a sickness or tragedy

The most effective marketers are pretty good at creating ads that are controversial, yet non-offensive. Why? Controversies get people talking. They have the potential to create a widespread buzz. From a marketing standpoint, that’s a great thing!

Effective marketers also know they need to make a connection with their audiences. One way to do that is by creating ads that are relevant to current issues or big issues that people are passionate about. It’s the epitome of, “Go big, or go home.”

Here’s the problem with controversial advertisements, though. There are two sides (at a minimum) to every controversy. When a marketer appeals to one side, there’s a risk of offending the other. There are no shortages of opinions in the world, right?

It’s a huge balancing act to walk the line between being big and bold without crossing the line that fuels anger and discontentment. Controversial print advertisements that choose a side on sensitive social issues (race, gender, tragic events, stereotypes, etc.) can be a huge hit or a devastating miss. 

At the end of the day, marketers that get controversial ads right hail as heroes, and those that fail end up with viral bloopers. 

To demonstrate our point, we’re giving you a snapshot of 9 of the most controversial ads in recent years, including some effective ads, and a few offensive ads too. 

  1. Protein World: Beach Body (2015)

In 2015, Protein World launched a series of ads to promote their protein supplements to users. They released the ad on the London Underground. 

The caption on one of the posters read, “Are you beach body ready?” It didn’t go over well with the general public. Onlookers blasted negativity on social media over the ad, alleging it promoted an unhealthy body image. 

It’s on our list of controversial advertisements because it led to public outrage, vigilantism, and vandalism. Individuals circulated a petition to have the ads removed. The Advertising Standards Authority in the U.K. received 378 complaints about it, and the ad was banned on the basis of making unauthorized health and nutrition claims. 

Was it worth the risk? Protein World spent £250,000 on the ad campaign. Their sales skyrocketed to over £1m. You be the judge. 

beach body ad

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  1. Benetton Group — Unhate Campaign (2011)

Benetton Group missed the mark with a controversial ad that showed world leaders kissing. Leaders like Obama, Merkel, and Sarkozy were featured kissing someone else in the ad. The intent of the ad was to speak to the idea of kissing as a universal symbol of love. 

The ad ran on billboards the world over. The ad was eye-raising especially considering they’d previously launched a controversial advertisement that depicted a nun and a priest kissing. The ad of Pope Benedict XVI kissing a top Egyptian imam was swiftly condemned by the Vatican and was removed shortly after. The controversy erupted over an advertiser using photos of world leaders without their consent. Some people went as far as tearing down the ads. 

Benetton Group ultimately won a prestigious Cannes ad festival award even though they never apologized or withdrew the ad. 

unhate ad

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  1. Nike — Colin Kaepernick (2018)

It’s hard to forget Colin Kaepernick and his stance on protesting the national anthem during football games in 2018 over discrimination against minorities. Nike showed their support by putting up billboards with the tagline “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”. 

Nike failed to recognize that many viewers felt his stance was un-American and that Nike was also un-American. Despite photos on social media of people destroying Nike products and using the hashtag #JustBurnIt, this is one of the most controversial ads that netted billions in new sales.

nike controversial ad

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  1. PETA — Save the Whales (2009)

PETA is an acronym for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. This animal rights activist group didn't consider that people who viewed their 2009 print ad might consider it unethical treatment of people. 

The controversial ad depicted the back of a curvy woman in a two-piece swimsuit and displayed in big, bold letters, “Save the Whales”. The tagline was even worse. It read, “Lose the blubber, go vegetarian”. In an age where the stigma against curvy-girl body types was starting to come into vogue, it outraged the public and they complained about it in droves. The group eventually took the ads down.  

save the whales ad

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  1. Dove — Before and After (2017)

Dove beauty brand launched a miss with a print ad to promote its new product, VisibleCare Body wash.  This controversial print advertisement showed three women standing in front of two posters, one showing dry, scaly skin, and the other depicting smooth, supple skin. The woman in front of the dry skin pic is black and the woman in front of the smooth skin is white. A mixed-race woman stands between them. 

Whether it was intentional or not, the ad implied that darker skin is dirty. Later in the year, they repeated their mistake with an offensive ad that showed a black woman gradually turning into a white woman. Considering the sensitive current issues surrounding Black Lives Matter, ads that remotely hint at discrimination are more controversial and heated than ever. This controversial ad bauble shows how easy brands can damage their reputation. 

dove controversial ad

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  1. Antonio Federici — Submit to Temptation (2009)

People say that you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion in public, and this controversial advertisement is a prime example of why religion doesn’t have a place in print ads either. Antonio Federici is an ice cream brand that used a print ad to demonstrate how tempting and sexy ice cream is. The ad showed a nun holding a container of the creamy ice cream in a close face-to-face stance with a Chippendale-esque sultry-looking man leaning into her. The headline read, “Submit to Temptation.” Catholics viewed this promotion as one of their top most controversial ads. The brand removed the ads after many complaints. 

federici controversial ad

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  1. Bacardi — The Ugly Girlfriend (2009)

Many women are concerned about their looks, and Bacardi tried to leverage that concept in one of the top most offensive ads for its rum brand. The concept behind the ad implied that women should go out for a night on the town accompanied by an ugly woman so they’d stand out as the prettier one. The ad shows a magazine cover with a photo of a curvy girl with a bad bob haircut and unattractive glasses in a silly pose. The ad says, “Wanna look amazing this summer? Get your hands on the hotness boosting accessory now: An ugly girlfriend!” Women everywhere filed complaints and the brand pulled the ad. 

bacardi controversial ad

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  1. Flora — Uhh, Dad, I’m Gay (2013)

Unilever (the parent company for Dove and Axe) sent shockwaves through the LGBTQ community with a controversial ad that ran in South Africa for Flora, a plant-based butter product. The ad depicted a photo of a bullet heading straight toward a ceramic human heart-shaped butter dish. The caption reads, “You need a strong heart today.” The idea behind this controversial advertisement is that fathers need to have a strong heart when a son or daughter comes out of the closet as gay. Members of the LGBTQ community expressed sadness and hurt at such a blatantly offensive ad. Unilever immediately put out a public apology and noted that the ad had been put out by an external agency in South Africa. 

flora controversial ad

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  1. Hacienda — Better Kool-Aid (2011)

Hacienda, the popular Mexican restaurant chain, struck an awful chord with the public with a controversial ad that referenced the tragic 1978 mass suicide that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana after cult members drank poisonous Kool-Aid. The ad read, “We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid.” To make matters worse, the ad displayed a photo of a frothy Margarita adorned with a lime wedge and added the tagline, “To die for!” The Margaritas may have been yummy, but the controversial ad was obviously in poor taste. The ad ran in Indiana for only two weeks before Hacienda took it down. It never pays to insult your patrons. 

hacienda controversial ad

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  1. Mr. Clean — “Mothers Day” (2011)

Mother's Day is one of the most treasured celebrations of the year. Proctor & Gamble decided to capitalize on that fact with a controversial print ad for Mr. Clean. The Ad depicts a woman cleaning a sparkling window and a little girl pointing out the window in admiration of her efforts. The caption reads, “This Mother’s Day, get back to the job that really matters.” There’s no doubt that being a mother is a job that really matters, but so does being a career woman. The ad didn’t go over well, especially with younger generations.  

mr clean controversial ad

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Surely, you have your own thoughts about controversial print advertisements and commercials. Check out ClickGUARD’s blog for more tools and information about how to create effective advertising campaigns, and sign up for our newsletter to keep you informed on the latest marketing trends. 

Jason is a passionate data-driven specialist with extensive PPC & SEO experience. When not writing about SEM he can be found surfboarding the wildest ocean waves of the Argentinian coast.