Most Controversial Ads of 2009: Consumer Reactions

  • The Worst Ads of 2009

    We are bombarded with advertisements every day, across every medium, but once in a while, an ad makes us stop and take notice. Often times though, it’s for the wrong reason. Do controversial ads entice consumers or incite them? And is the latter necessarily counterproductive to making a sale? We’ve written about the success of shock marketing before, and there’s definitely something to it. But ironically, many of the most controversial ads attempt to promote good causes, only to have the ads overshadow the cause in the public eye. Some countries like Canada have actually gone so far as to try and ban controversial ads, but obviously, this runs counter to our most valued principle of free speech. Here are eight of the most controversial ad campaigns so far from 2009. The question to ask yourself when looking at these is do these ads make you interested in or angry at these products? Photo Credit: islandjoe
    Gay Sandwiches
  • Gay Sandwiches

    What do sandwiches have to do with your sexuality? Ideally nothing. But Mr. Sub, a Canadian sandwich company, decided to merge the two in an unfortunate advertisement. Mr. Sub launched a series of ads called Not Everyone Likes Surprises. All were benign and some even funny, but one ad struck a chord with viewers. According to, “The ad showed a family sitting around the dining room table when the father cheerfully announces that he’s gay. Upon questioning by a grimacing young girl who is presumably his daughter: “You mean like gay, gay?” he responds, patting her on the head affectionately: “Like super, super gay.” Then the tag: Not Everyone Like Surprises. Members of the LGBT community were outraged by the ad, and the controversy eventually caused Mr. Sub to fire the ad agency behind it.
    Good Without God
  • Good Without God

    Is New York City really such a godless place? During the summer, ads promoting atheism flooded the city’s bus system. The ads, which came from the New York City Atheists, an affiliate of American Atheists, were inspired by a similar campaign in London the previous year. The words, “You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person,” screamed out from banners on the sides of buses. The campaign lasted one month and irritated many religious New Yorkers, but next week, another atheist campaign will hit New York’s subways, with the new message, “A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are You?” In this case, shocking passersby may be the goal because the purpose of these ads is to get people to think about their beliefs.
    Sex Education Gone Wrong
  • Sex Education Gone Wrong

    An AIDS awareness campaign in Germany took a wrong turn when they featured an ad showing Hitler having passionate sex with a young woman, before the message “AIDS is a mass murderer” flashes on screen. The video was posted online originally, with plans to air on television, but after pressure mounted from AIDS prevention groups, German Jewish advocates and pretty much everyone else, the ad was canned all together.
    Sasha and Malia Used As Pitchmen
  • Sasha and Malia Used As Pitchmen

    Earlier this year, an ad sponsored by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ran an ad in the nation’s capital with the positive message that children need to be fed healthier foods in schools. Sounds innocent enough, until you include the president’s children. In the ad, an eight-year old girl (pictured here) talks about the healthy lunch options that Obama’s two girls have at their private school, Sidwell Friends in the suburbs outside of D.C., and then wonders aloud to herself, “Why don’t I?” In general, using the children of notable figures is considered a bad move, but to use President Obama’s daughters to promote a policy they’d presumably want the President himself to get behind is a questionable strategy, at best.
    White Teeth Ads Get Dirty
  • White Teeth Ads Get Dirty

    White Teeth ads are this year’s version of penis enlargement promotions. For the last few months, advertisements for white teeth have been all over the web, appearing on venerable sites like CNN and Forbes. It’s bad enough when the same ads are repeated over and over online, and worse still when many of those ads feature graphic discolored teeth. But when that ad turns out to be promoting a scam, consumers really get angry. According to Wired, ads for the company Dazzle White (which sometimes goes by the aliases Dazzle Smile and Teeth Smile) attract customers with promises of low-cost samples of teeth whitening products, only to slam them with hidden charges.
    Is This News?
  • Is This News?

    Ad placement is just as important as ad content, and in one case, just as controversial. This year, for the first time, the LA Times published an ad on its front page, which at first glance, looked like a real news story. The "article" was written from the perspective of a journalist on a ride along with a Los Angeles police officer. In reality, the ad was for the show Southland, a cop drama. It ran just below the fold on the front page, forcing many to wonder whether journalism might finally be dead. As for the success of the ad, Southland was cancelled this month.
    Hitler... You Again?
  • Hitler... You Again?

    Using a celebrity in an ad is rarely a bad idea, but when you mix in two celebrities, things can get complicated. CNA, an entertainment retail chain store in South Africa, launched an ad campaign that melded the images of two famous people to promote the fact that the store has a wide-ranging selection of products. It sounds harmless enough, until they decided to combine Hitler… with James Dean. As we’ve already seen on this list, Hitler always causes a stir, but when you pair him with an American icon, you’re bound to anger some folks. Beyond that, what kind of crazy product spectrum begins with mid-20th century cool, and ends with mid-20th century genocide?
    Using 9/11 for Publicity? Too Soon
  • Using 9/11 for Publicity? Too Soon

    A Brazillian ad campaign for the charity WWF (not the WWF you’re thinking of; it’s the World Wildlife Fund) went horribly wrong when they decided to reference the September 11th attacks. The ad was supposed to promote awareness for the tsunami that pummeled Indonesia in 2004. According to one description of the ad, “"We see two airplanes blowing up the WTC's [World Trade Centre's] twin towers ... We see hundreds of airplanes invading the screen. Before they hit the buildings ... lettering reminds us that the tsunami killed 100 times more people." It’s still unclear whether the ad actually aired on television, but it is available online. The controversy surrounding the ad forced the WWF to distance itself from it and eventually to condemn the ad all together.
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