The 3 Funniest Marketing Fails (And Why Proper Strategy Matters)

We’ve all seen them… the marketing blunders that make you die laughing, the tone-deaf messaging that makes you cringe, or the boneheaded ads that make you go 😬. They’re usually hilarious to us and worthy of sharing them with our friends until they go viral, but it’s a different story entirely when it’s your business that makes the mistake. Mistakes like the ones we’ll see today are one’s that can haunt your company for years to come (similar to that mullet I once thought was cool as a kid and now just torments me).

Now that the table is set, so to speak, let’s take a look at some blunders from recent past that created nightmares for their organizations…

#1 - “Got Milk?”

In 1993, the California Milk Processor Board (CMPB) began running the “Got Milk?” ads we’re all so familiar with in an effort to boost declining milk sales. In what later became one of the most iconic ad campaigns of all time, this campaign was almost doomed to fail before it even began. 

As the CMPB ads were beginning to run in California (which had a Hispanic population of nearly 7 million at the time), a prominent Hispanic ad executive informed the board that “Got Milk?” translated to “Are you lactating?” in Spanish. Not so appetizing now!

To their credit, the CMPB quickly did an about-face and made sure to advertise to the Hispanic community in a much more appropriate way. In doing so, they were able to launch “Got Milk?” successfully and help prevent a loss of almost $255 million in its first year. (

They were one of the lucky few to catch their blunder early and prevent any real damage. The next one on the other hand…

#2 - Hoover Vacuum

Although they’re no longer the top seller of vacuums these days, their brand name is still cemented in the minds of consumers. Hoover Vacuum has been a household brand for more than 100 years and survived some of the most disastrous world events: World War l, World War ll, the Great Depression, etc etc. So it came as quite a shock to me when I heard that a failed marketing campaign actually brought down this behemoth.

In 1992, the company had an overstock of aging vacuums and wanted to get them sold and off their books quickly. Someone (likely the new hire in marketing) had the brilliant idea to offer two free roundtrip tickets from the UK to the US (value = $1,500 in today’s dollars) when they purchased more than £100 ($135) in Hoover products. 

To say they sold like hotcakes would be an understatement! Over 200,000 people took Hoover up on this boneheadedly generous offer which brought in over £30 million in revenue, only to be offset by £50 million in airplane ticket costs.

Needless to say, lots of money was lost, executives got canned, and Hoover eventually had to sell to another company in order to settle its debts. Woof!

#3 - The Braille Superstore

Based upon the copy alone, I’d like to believe this was intended to be a clever joke. But for the sake of this article, let’s just assume that it wasn’t and we’re dealing with someone who was smart enough to figure out how to set up a Google Ad, but not quite smart enough to know their target audience.

I think it’s safe to say that this marketing endeavor was a complete FAIL — not only because they didn’t reach their intended audience but because of one other thing they probably didn’t consider. Google Ads charge on a Pay Per Click (PPC) basis, which means that the ad is free until someone clicks on it, at which point Google gladly withdrawals a few pennies (or dollars) from your account. The death knell of this ad was its accidental cleverness - lots of people probably clicked on it not with the intention of buying, but just to see if it was a joke. In other words, the Braille Superstore paid a lot of money for traffic that had no intention of purchasing any “never seen before” products. Smh.

And Now, Why Proper Strategy Matters…

Besides the fact that all these ads were hilariously bad, the main thing they had in common was their huge misstep in their approach to marketing strategy.

For instance, “Got Milk?” is guilty of not clarifying their message… at least not to a large group of their audience. They focused so closely on one audience group, that they ignoring what they were saying to everyone else. It’s important to remember that not everything your brand says is relevant to the entirety of your customers. That’s where creating client avatars comes in handy. This helps you clarify who your audience is and what matters to them so you can more easily and effectively communicate your message to them. Doing so would have prevented the CMPB from making their near-disastrous oversight.

On the other hand, Hoover failed to consider how their gimmick of a marketing strategy would affect the overall business. The “buy X and get X+Y” marketing ploy is one that can work, but only if the numbers work too. Giving away $1,250+ per customer is not a strategy… it’s lunacy. Hoover either would have had to alter the value of their giveaway, or cap the promotion so it didn’t get out of control and lose them an exorbitant amount of money. They did neither and paid for it dearly in cash, jobs, and their company. To their defense, it’s not common to have a marketing campaign go poorly and have it implode the whole company, but some thought should have been put into how this campaign could affect the overall finances of the company (this is where including the finance department is wise).

Lastly, the Braille Superstore failed at properly strategizing where they needed to communicate their message to more effectively reach their audience. Admittedly, this can be a difficult activity (although, it really shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to know that those in need of braille products likely aren’t going to be browsing internet ads). To successfully accomplish this, you need to put yourself into your audience’s shoes and ask yourself “when would I need this product, and how would I go about finding it?” As an example, if you’re a catering company targeting moms throwing parties, you’d likely find your audience looking for you via Google search—therefore, your best bet to reach them is via SEM (Search Engine Marketing). You’d be wasting your money if you tried running ads in a local newspaper. Or, if you’re a seed manufacturer targeting farmers ages 45-65, you’d be best suited running radio ads during the commercial breaks of local sports events. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t try fishing for a swordfish in your local pond nor hunt Snow Geese in the Mojave Desert.

To boil it all down, when you’re working businesses marketing, focus on these five questions and you’ll be well on your way to not becoming the next viral FAIL:

  1. What's the objective? (What goal are you trying to accomplish?)

  2. What's the message? (What's the problem, solution, and result?)

  3. Who is the audience? (Who they are, where they are, what they want)

  4. What's the tone? (What voice do they need to hear your message in?)

  5. What's the mood? (What visual and audio is needed to support he message?)

PS - if you’re reading this article and think, “Oh man, I need some serious help with my marketing!” then don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Just click here to schedule a free 30-minute strategy consult.

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