March 15, 2021 | 7 min reading time

Everybody loves a bit of controversy (😈), but when it comes to controversial ads, the opinions are split. On the one hand, we have those who say “all publicity is good publicity”, but on the other hand, there’s an entire school of thought that advises against the shock factors and errs on the side of caution. 

What are some of the most controversial ads that rocked the world -- and why? And even more than that, what was the effect they had on people?

You know we love ads, so here are our picks for the top 10 most controversial ads in the world: 

Pepsi’s Live for Now 

By far one of the most controversial ads of recent years, Pepsi’s Live for Now ad managed to spark a lot of outrage among a pretty diverse audience (ranging from Martin Luther King’s daughter to Madonna).

Initially, the ad was meant to tap into the Millennial spirit by portraying a protest (which looked eerily familiar with a “Black Lives Matter” protest). What was most outrageous about this ad, however, was that Kendal Jenner (a supermodel and member of the (in)famous Kardashian family) appeared as a savior ending police brutality with a can of...Pepsi. 

The ad was so infuriating that Pepsi had to take it down less than 24 hours after it first aired. 

Gillette’s “We Believe” 

When Gillette’s We Believe ad aired for the first time in 2019, the world was almost instantaneously split between those who appreciated it and those who had pretty negative feelings about it -- so much so that the ad was almost instantaneously labeled as one of the most controversial ads ever.

Tapping into the #MeToo movement, Gillette created an otherwise emotional ad about “the best men can be”, in which it called out toxic male stereotypes and supported the idea that men can hold each other accountable for their actions. 

Unfortunately, this ad did not have the desired effect. On the one hand, men were upset that they were being portrayed badly. On the other hand, women were upset that Gillette’s intentions might not have been the best (especially in the light of the fact that it was taking advantage of the #MeToo movement). 

Dove’s Body Wash Ad 

In an ad for their products, Dove managed to spark some pretty serious skin color-related outrage. More specifically, they featured an African-American woman taking her shirt off to become… Caucasian. 

It’s easy to see why this ad made so many people angry. Not only was the ad worrisome, but Dove’s public apology left a lot for interpretation as well. The results? Weeks after the release of this ad, the #DoneWithDove hashtag was still trending on social media. 

Controversial Ad Dove

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Protein World’s Beach Body Ad

In 2015, Protein World released an ad featuring a woman on it, which said “Are You Beach Body Ready?”

On the surface, this might not seem like much, but many feminist groups pointed out the idea that the ad insinuated the model’s type of body is the only type of body that’s “ready for the beach” (which is a way to body-shame everyone else). 

Despite the backlash, the ad went on to make a lot of money -- four times more than the initial investment, actually. So this might have been one of those “no publicity is bad publicity” kind of things after all, right? 

Controversial Ad Protein World

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Bud Light’s “Up for Whatever” 

When Bud Light released “Up for Whatever”, it seemed pretty harmless. A guy was being asked to do something and he just went with it (because, yes, he was “up for whatever”). Doing this led him to a point where he played table tennis with Arnold Schwarzenegger at a OneRepublic concert (the underlying message being that great things happen when you just “roll with it”). 

Harmless, right? 

It seems that the public saw beyond the initial message of the ad (even more so since the bottles were inscribed with “the perfect beer for removing no from your vocabulary for the night.” You can definitely see where things can wrong here, right? With the role alcohol plays in rape cases, Bud Light’s message could be interpreted quite negatively. 

After many complaints, Bud apologized for their ad and pulled back the entire campaign. 

Microsoft and Marina Abramović

Considering the wide range of conspiracy theories Microsoft has been involved in over the years, it makes perfect sense that satanic rituals would be associated with them too (sooner or later, at least). 

Microsoft featured Marina Abramovic in an ad that was released to promote their mixed reality product, which would seem quite harmless when you look at it. The issue here was not the ad per se, but the person featured in it, as Marina Abramović’s art has been frequently associated with spiritualism, satanic rituals, and barbaric performances. 

The ad received no less than 24,000 downvotes on YouTube, so it was eventually pulled back by Microsoft. 

Watch the ad here

McDonald’s Fillet-o-Fish Ad

Being insensitive can attract a lot of backlash, especially when you try to associate your product with extremely sad stories. 

This is exactly what happened with McDonald’s ad in the UK a few years back. The story behind the ad featured a boy who asked his mother about his late father, but was somehow spun to end up at McDonald’s, where the boy ordered a Fillet-o-Fish (supposedly, his father’s favorite sandwich too). 

It’s easy to see why this might have been perceived negatively by the audience. Eventually, McDonald’s pulled back their ad. 

Nivea’s White Is Purity Ad 

Words matter. A lot. And this is exactly what Nivea seems to have forgotten when they released an ad for their stain-free deodorant, which claimed that “White is purity”. 

Of course, their message might not have been a racist one -- but it could be easily interpreted as such. No matter what their initial intentions were with this ad, though, Nivea had to face quite a lot of backlash upon its release. As such, they issued a formal apology and published an entire section on diversity and inclusivity in their core values bio. 

Controversial Ad Nivea

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Nike’s “Just Do It”

Nike’s slogan is so famous it would be nearly impossible to not have heard about it at least once in your life. 

Did you know, however, that when they released their Colin Kaepernick ad, the public didn’t see it as an inspirational story? 

This has nothing to do with the ad per se, but with Kaepernick himself who refused to stand up for the national anthem two years prior to the release of the Nike ad. He was perceived as anti-patriotic and as such, by association, Nike was perceived as a brand that stood by the same values as Colin Kaepernick too. 

Ugh, talk about “careful who you hang out with”... 

PETA Save the Whales

The mere sight of this title can trigger some pretty old-school (and quite hurtful jokes), but when PETA decided to make the running “whale” jokes into an ad, the world went wild. 

In an ad that featured a curvy lady on a beach, PETA promoted vegetarianism with the message “Save the whales, lose the blubber”. Clearly, this was a case where they wanted to be intentionally offensive, but what was perhaps not so clear to them before releasing the ad is that nobody would take it as inspirational, funny, or even remotely witty. 

Controversial Ad PETA

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Here at ClickGUARD, we don't deal with controversial ads per se, but we do deal with something that's even more outrageous: a billion-dollar problem called "click fraud". Curious to learn more? Subscribe to our newsletter and keep an eye on what we publish around here (everything marketing & PPC related 😉)

Jason is the CMO @ ClickGUARD. He is passionate about all things PPC, SEO and has extensive customer acquisition experience. When not writing about SEM he can be found surfing the wildest ocean waves of the South American coast.