18 companies destroyed by bad publicity and negative PR: The worst examples ever!
Think all press is good press? The number of companies destroyed by bad publicity over the years tells a different story. Sure, a scandal gets people talking. But most companies don’t get a bunch of sales from tone-deaf social posts and health scares. Shocking, right?
A company’s reputation is a fragile thing. Sometimes, little mistakes can be swept under the rug or mitigated with a quick apology. Other times, PR fails can be costly – very costly. Just look at Facebook. The Cambridge Analytica scandal cost Zuckerberg $725 million.
That number doesn’t even include the cost of rebranding the entire company to “Meta”, just so Facebook could escape a never-ending black mark on its reputation.
Today, we’re covering some of the most shocking, painful, and downright destructive negative PR and bad publicity failures of all time.
Let’s jump in.
Companies with bad publicity: The impact of poor PR
“To err is human”, or so they say. Even the most seasoned PR veterans can make mistakes. In fact, countless companies destroyed by bad publicity were “cancelled” just for an insensitive tweet. We all remember the cringe-worthy slew of messages sent out by brands during the pandemic.
Of course, it’s not just dumb messaging that inspires bad publicity. Sometimes companies really do deserve a little backlash. Many successful, well-known brands have suffered agonizing headlines due to evidence of greed, negligence, and problematic ethics.
Some businesses have even deliberately leaned into the idea that there’s no such thing as bad press. But there’s a big difference between cheeky tweets from companies like Wendy’s, and messages that leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths.
If you take anything away from the examples below (aside from a chuckle), we hope it’s the knowledge that bad PR is more problematic than it seems.
The top 18 companies destroyed by bad publicity
Corporate scandals happen on a pretty regular basis. From Samsung’s Galaxy Note exploding and catching fire, to Burger King’s gender discrimination posts. We can’t cover all of the major scandals here, but we are going to cover some of the biggest PR blunders we’ve seen in the past few years.
Hold onto your hats. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
1. Krispy Kreme’s “KKK Wednesday”
We all love a great deal and a delicious donut, right? Unfortunately, when Krispy Kreme’s branch in Hull promoted a slew of half-term activities for kids in 2015, their naming strategy missed the mark.
Intending to draw attention to their “Krispy Kreme Klub” on Wednesday, the 18th of February, the team unfortunately chose the name “KKK Wednesday”. We don’t have to tell you how problematic that decision was. The company saw immediate online backlash.
Old and new customers alike started connecting Krispy Kreme donuts with the “Ku Klux Klan”, labelling them as a racist organization. Despite the campaign only rolling out to local customers, it quickly went viral, forcing the company to air a public apology. Whoops!
2. Uber’s sexist remarks
Uber has had its fair share of bad publicity over the years. Labelled as a startup unicorn by experts, Uber seemed like the company destined to transform the world of transport. The only problem? Their unethical practices left consumers and drivers running for the hills.
Ever since 2014, Uber has been involved in scandals connected to gender discrimination, sexism, and more. CEO Travis Kalanick even joked about creating a female-only rideshare app called “Boober”. Classy.
Kalanick was also caught on camera arguing with his own driver about fares.
Though he issued an apology and said he planned to get help with his leadership strategies, the damage was already done. He took a leave of absence three months later, but the scandals just kept coming.
In 2022, a trove of confidential files were even leaked.
They showed Uber breaking laws, secretly lobbying governments, and duping police.
Not a good look.
3. Ryanair’s cancellation fiasco
Talk about companies that lost customer trust in the last few years. No amount of cheap air fares have prompted customers to completely overlook Ryanair’s PR failings. In 2017, Ryanair admitted it had made a “major boo boo” by messing up pilot holidays, forcing bookings to be cancelled.
Michael O’Leary, the head honcho at Ryanair said 40 to 50 flights were cancelled due to a “major management failure”. Although he apologized to shareholders, he also tried to pin the blame on “unions”, which didn’t help the matter much.
This wasn’t the first or last time Ryanair suffered from PR disasters. In 2013, O’Leary was accused of sexism after commenting “Phwoaarr!” on a female user’s twitter photo. Plus, in 2022, the whole company was accused of discrimination against South African nationals.
The team forced the group to take a knowledge test in “Afrikaans” to prove their nationality before they were allowed to board flights to the UK and Europe. Yikes.
4. Budweiser misses the mark (multiple times)
Craft ale brewers, Brewdog have shown sometimes “branding with balls”, can pay off – but only when you know how to connect with your target market. Budweiser unfortunately forgot this rule when creating its Super Bowl advert in 2015.
The company wanted to take on independent craft ales disrupting the market at the time. They decided to do that by poking fun at the “Hipster” market. Their ad described customers drinking delicate glasses of “pumpkin peach ale”, and proudly called their drink a “macro beer”.
Later, Budweiser rubbed customers the wrong way again with its “Up for Whatever” campaign, which advertised its beer as perfect for “removing no from your vocabulary”. The slogan came at a time when sexual assault and binge drinking issues were gaining a lot of attention.
Though the company apologized, many consumers chose to boycott the brand.
5. Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder blunder
For years, Johnson & Johnson have built an image for themselves as a company that “cares” about their customers. Unfortunately, in 2017, a major scandal damaged that reputation forever.
The company’s baby powder product was found to be contaminated by asbestos, which is known for causing a cancer called mesothelioma. For years, the company denied that the product had any impact on human health.
However, documents revealed in 2017 told another story.
Researchers found the executives of the Johnson & Johnson team were well aware of the asbestos in their products, they just chose to ignore it. Although they voluntarily recalled over 33,000 bottles of the product, the damage was already done.
6. McDonald’s “Super Size Me”
Ever wonder why McDonald’s has become so focused on “healthy” products lately? It might be that the company is finally paying attention to customer trends. But most people would agree that it has something to do with the “Super Size Me” documentary from 2004.
The doc, directed by Morgan Spurlock, looked at what would happen if he ate nothing but McDonalds for a month. Plus, every time an employee asked if he wanted to “supersize” his meal he would. The food had a profound effect, and Spurlock gained 25 pounds.
After customers viewed the documentary, it became a cautionary tale about overeating. Sales dropped to their lowest levels ever in the UK. Plus, McDonald’s started ditching its supersize portions, and revamping its messaging to feature healthier foods.
7. IHOP’s personality pancakes
IHOP has experimented with ruffling customer feathers a few times in the past. Remember in 2018 when the company temporarily rebranded to “IHOB” just to cause a stir? While tactics like that didn’t harm the company’s brand image for long, other problematic campaigns have.
In 2015, IHOP posted a tweet deliberately comparing their pancakes to women’s bodies. The tweet said the food was “flat” but had a “great personality”. Ouch.
The message left consumers and celebrity endorsers reeling. Countless consumers responded to the initial tweet, declaring their outrage. Although the company deleted the tweet, and the IHOP twitter account followed up with an apology, the rage continued.
If this doesn’t teach companies to be cautious with their social media campaigns, we don’t know what will.
8. Walmart’s racist ice cream
Surely something as delicious as ice cream couldn’t lead to negative publicity, right? Wrong. In 2022, Walmart was accused of trying to profit off Black Americans with a tactless new ice cream flavor intended to celebrate “Juneteenth”.
For those who don’t know, the day celebrates the day that slaves across America finally earned their freedom. After the day became an official holiday, Walmart instantly released a new ice cream flavor, much to the distaste of their customers.
The company quickly pulled the product from their freezers, and issued an apology. Unfortunately, customers said the apology was pretty vague, and not particularly meaningful.
9. Ulta Beauty’s insensitive emails
Most marketers know how effective email campaigns can be. They’re great for consistently connecting with customers – as long as you use them right.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome, from sending out problematic cold email campaigns to non-subscribers, to finding the right tone for your audience. Ulta Beauty discovered just how problematic an un-checked email campaign could be in 2022.
The company sent out an email campaign titled “Come hang with Kate Spade” to promote a line of new perfumes. Unfortunately, it reminded customers of Spade’s mental health issues, and her death in 2018 after suffering from depression.
Ulta sent an apology email to subscribers, saying it deeply regretted the choice of words.
10. Tropicana’s boozy pandemic ads
If you’re looking for companies destroyed by bad publicity, you don’t have to look back too far. The pandemic created a slew of PR nightmares, when virtually every company tried to show how much they “cared” through social media channels and email.
Unfortunately, in a desperate attempt to retain sales, some companies made the wrong choice with their messaging. Tropicana launched the #TakeAMimoment campaign in 2020, encouraging parents struggling with remote school and work to take a moment for themselves.
Sounds nice enough right? Unfortunately, the company also suggested that people should whip up a mimosa with its juice during time away from the kids. At a time when alcohol consumption was rising, it was a huge misstep.
11. United Airlines’ overbooked flights
Clearly, airlines are no strangers to PR crises. Ryanair isn’t the only company that suffered damage to its brand reputation for poor management practices. In 2017, United Airlines earned endless media backlash when a man was violently dragged off an overbooked flight.
Further research into the company found similar problems in the past, with two girls being denied access to a flight simply because they were wearing leggings. However, it was the YouTube video of the doctor being dragged off the plane that really caused the most damage.
Though the airline settled with the man for an undisclosed sum, the video still went viral. Additionally, the Chief Executive Officer for the company didn’t do a great job at apologizing for the problem, pushing many customers to boycott the brand.
12. KFC’s lesson in history
Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of companies who have suffered from negative PR in the food and beverage industry. One of which is KFC. The company has encountered a few issues in the past. Perhaps the most significant happened in 2022, when KFC launched a German campaign.
On the evening of the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a violent attack considered to be one of the first pogroms of the Holocaust, customers in Germany were greeted with a push notification on their phone. The message seemed to celebrate the memorial day for “Kristallnacht”.
After outraged customers complained about the campaign, KFC quickly released a statement apologizing. Of course, this wasn’t the first time the fast-food chain faced problems. Remember in 2018 when the KFC branches throughout the UK had to close their doors?
At least in that instance, the company responded to its lack of chicken with a hilarious ad campaign.
13. H&M: The coolest monkey
One of the biggest fashion companies whose reputation was damaged by bad PR is H&M. Like many major brands, the company has faced a few issues with its corporate image over the years. Right now, they’re currently tackling issues with “greenwashing”.
However, the biggest damage to the company’s corporate reputation happened in 2018, and it started with nothing more than an adorable monkey on a sweatshirt. We know what you’re thinking, how could animal-themed clothes harm a fashion company’s image?
Simply put – bad advertising. H&M used a picture of an African American child wearing the sweatshirt. Unfortunately, “Monkey” has a negative association with racial slurs. At the same time, white children modeled most of the other sweatshirts.
People accused the brand of creating the issue deliberately.
14. Heineken’s light beer
Another of the biggest beer companies destroyed by bad publicity in recent years is Heineken. Clearly, they didn’t learn anything from Budweiser’s publicists. The brewery giants released an ad in 2018 that many customers saw as deliberately racist.
The commercial showed someone sliding a drink down a bar to a patron. The beer passes various customers of a darker complexion, before eventually reaching a light-skinned woman. As the beer passes by, we see the label for “Heineken Light”.
The slogan, “Sometimes lighter is better” did nothing to help the racist tones of the ad. The negative feedback from customers was huge, forcing Heineken to remove the video and issue an apology. Obviously, these beer companies need to rethink their messaging.
15. Adidas’ bad choice of words
Adidas has earned a reputation as one of the biggest sporting apparel companies in the world, thanks in large part to its commitment to its customers. Unfortunately, even companies with a good history can make a mistake from time to time.
In 2017, Adidas sent a mass email to Boston Marathon runners, congratulating them on finishing the race. Clearly, the company thought this would be a good way to show just how much they cared about their customers and fitness in general.
The only problem? A very poor choice of words. The subject line was “Congrats, you survived!”. Sounds innocent enough, until we remember that a bombing killed and wounded several people at the Boston Marathon just a few years earlier. Oops.
16. Pepsi’s “Black Lives Matter” debacle
This is probably one of the most cringeworthy commercials we’ve seen in the last few years. Back when the “Black Lives Matter” protests were making front page news in 2017, Pepsi decided to get involved with the hype – like many brands at the time.
Unlike a lot of other companies, who shared meaningful messages on social media, Pepsi decided to do something different. They created a bold campaign showing Kendall Jenner calming an angry crowd. She hands a police officer a can of the soda, and the riots start to stop. Oof.
Activists blasted the ad instantly, saying Pepsi was clearly trivializing a serious issue. The campaign was immediately pulled from the air. However, this didn’t stop the PR blunder from pushing countless consumers to boycott the brand completely.
17. Chipotle’s E.Coli outbreaks
Sometimes, companies destroyed by bad publicity only have their own negligence to blame. That was definitely the case for Chipotle, back in 2015. Throughout the year, various consumers started getting E. Coli after eating at the fast-food chain.
The company responded pretty quickly, closing 43 restaurants across the US. They also promised to make major changes to their policies for food safety. Despite trying to win back customer trust with a short film, called “A Love Story”, Chipotle failed to reconnect with its audience.
Over the following three years, another 1000 customers became sick, and Chipotle was forced to pay a $25 million fine. To make matters worse, the company also experienced a huge drop to their stock value. We’ll definitely think twice about eating here again.
18. Abercrombie’s discriminatory image
When will CEO’s learn? It’s not just the messaging you create for your company that makes an impact on customers – it’s your reputation too. CEO’s need to choose their words very carefully – and Abercombie & Fitch learned this the hard way.
Back in 2016, the company made plenty of waves when CEO Mike Jeffries said the company was unapologetic for its exclusionary marketing. Jeffries claimed the company only wanted to cater to “cool kids” – whatever that means.
The issue was only made worse by the fact that the store was deliberately discriminatory in its product collections. The brand refused to carry any larger sizes for bigger children. Plus, the company suffered from a host of lawsuits from employees about discriminatory hiring practices.
Fortunately, Jeffries finally stepped down from his position in 2014, which gave the company the opportunity to start repairing its image (slowly).
Learning from companies that lost customer trust
Hopefully, these examples of companies destroyed by bad publicity will teach other business leaders a lesson. Not all PR is good PR. Maintaining a good reputation and preserving your brand value is hard – trust us, we know. Even the slightest misstep can destroy your public image.
So, what does that mean for companies planning bold marketing campaigns? Well, sometimes taking a risk can pay off. Shaking things up is always a great way to get attention.
However, good publicity requires careful planning. Do your research, listen to your audience, and double-check every message you send out there.
You never know when a casual Facebook post could lead to the destruction of your brand image.
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