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10 Scariest Marketing Mistakes

October 30, 2019  /  by  Cassie Shukitis

The month of October is best spent watching Hocus Pocus for the eighty-second time, carving pumpkins, and reading scary stories by candlelight. But Halloween isn’t what it used to be. People are braver than they once were, at least when it comes to creepy-crawlies and looming psychopaths. Purveyors of fright have been forced to up the ante, to elevate these tales from the crypt to frighten the modern man and woman. It wasn’t an easy task, but Roger West got the job done. Hours upon hours were spent diving the darkest depths of the internet to curate the most terrifying tales known to man and marketer alike.

Here’s a hint:

More sinister than an evil clown in a sewer…

More dangerous than a creep with knives for fingers…

More horrifying than flesh-eating zombies…

Bad marketing.

Here are 10 of the scariest marketing mistakes ever made:

1. Skipping the Homework

More than an urban legend, more than a campfire ghost story – this first marketing mistake is a cautionary tale to all brands looking to interface with the public. In 2014, DiGiorno Pizza attempted to participate in a little hashtag magic on Twitter – putting their spin on the then trending #WhyIStayed. The hashtag, set up to raise awareness for those sharing their stories of domestic abuse and violence was turned into a mockery with the frozen pizza brand’s irresponsible response: “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.” After receiving instant negative feedback, the brand then tweeted, “A million apologies. Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting.” This marketing nightmare could have been avoided if DiGiorno’s social media manager had done five minutes of research into the hashtag’s origin. Never skip the research, it could save your (brand’s) life.

2. Nightmare on Tweet Street

Fake tweets, false reviews, and the general misuse of social media for the sake of advertising is something that has been around since…well, the beginning of social media advertising. In 2012, health provider Health Net was caught using fake Tweets on billboards and other promotional materials. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the Tweet’s author, @BizGuy1, was a private account with no followers and no actual Tweets. To make matters worse, Health Net stood behind their mistake…but the fake reviews didn’t stop there.

In 2013, Twitter came under fire and released an apology for using the likenesses of real users in fake tweets that were used in ads and promotional materials for a number of brands and businesses. Some of this mistake’s “victims” threatened legal action for being used without their consent.

3. Hubris – The Folly of Man

This example is the perfect horror movie parallel, like watching the brooding jock enter the dark, dank basement alone and unarmed. In 2006, Lifelock’s CEO Todd Davis posted his real social security number on Lifelock’s official website. Yes, he did so intentionally. Todd Davis was certain that Lifelock would protect his identity because the product was just that good. It wasn’t. As a result of this act of hubris, Todd Davis has been the victim of identity theft more than 13 times, and landed Lifelock a $12 million fine for deceptive advertising.

4. Legal Uh Ohs!

Preceding the release of its 2006 Godfather II video game, American game company EA sent out promotional boxes containing gold brass knuckles. The company failed to check the legality of their promotional goodies, and all packages had to be resent to EA after they learned that the weapons were illegal in many states. Luckily this one was caught before Godfather II turned into an installment of The Purge.

5. Capitalizing on Tragedy

Few things are more horrifying than a lack of tact. Unfortunately, many brands still struggle with the art of sensitivity. Kenneth Cole exploited the turmoil of many Egyptians after their 2011 tweet, “Millions are in uproar in Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online…”.

Foodie favorite Epicurious fell into a similar trap, clumsily suggesting that cranberry scones were “in honor of Boston?” after the Boston bombing in 2013. Some horror stories tell themselves. These two do just that.

6. Email Misfires

This marketing blunder is as common as a mask-wearing killer, but it needs to be mentioned. The year was 2011, and the New York Times hastily sent an email without confirming the correspondence’s audience. The email was intended for just 300 users who canceled their subscriptions, offering them a discounted rate for re-subscribing. The email ended up being sent to 8 million subscribers – some of whom were angry that their rates were higher than the intended audience.

7. Pepsi, The Elixir of Life?

Few marketing mistakes are as appropriate for Halloween as Pepsi’s international error. When the soft-drink brand expanded into China, it was using the slogan, “Pepsi brings you back to life.” A great slogan, sure, but it didn’t quite translate into Chinese as they’d hoped. The translated slogan actually read, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” What would George A. Romero have to say about that?

8. Negative ROI

This marketing mistake is sure to send your CFO running and screaming. When brands launch marketing campaigns that orbit around the idea of a giveaway, it’s important that the items won’t put the company at a major loss. In 1993, Hoover forgot about their bottom line and launched a UK campaign promising flights to the U.S. for anyone who bought $100 worth of their products. The price of plane tickets to America was substantially higher than the $100 spend requirement, leading to a $50 million loss for Hoover. A real money-suck.

9. Creepy Mascots

Burger King’s infamous mascot, The King, has crept into the nightmares of men and children for years – much to the detriment of the falling fast food giant. In 2012, Burger King lost its runner up throne to Wendy’s, and is now struggling to stay ahead of Taco Bell which, believe it or not, is not the best place to be. Burger King tried, and failed, to make fun of their own strange marketing choices – once again to the chagrin of franchisees and customers. The lesson here is: leave the creepiness to the monsters and keep your brand out of it.

10. High-jacking Copyrighted Images

The design element of marketing is a pretty big deal, especially when you’re not using proprietary designs or images. Failing to run ideas by legal or checking for ownership is a huge mistake many brands make. Kylie and Kendall Jenner made this very booboo after trying to launch a line of $125 shirts using the likeness and image of deceased musicians like Tupac Shakur. After failing to check the copyrights or clearing it with the musicians’ estates, the Jenner girls were forced to pull the shirts. Copyrights, trademarks, and licenses help protect brands from theft or imitation. Always clear images or slogans before launching a product or service.

Terrified of making the next list of scariest marketing mistakes? Roger West can keep you safe and sound. Let’s talk!