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A Look into Horrible Advertisements in Recent Years

Hard Lessons in Advertising

©Somewhere Else
We’ve all seen it. In our modern age, advertisements are part and parcel of the information stream we receive – populated on our social media feeds, screened before the latest blockbuster, or disrupting the 10-minute YouTube travel vlog you’re watching in-between work.

Within this noise, some ads stand out—but for the wrong reasons. It’s the ads that made you queasy, puzzled or even horrified that they passed through the approval of management. 

The advertising industry, like most creative industries, is often filled with imaginative minds who favour testing boundaries. But, as we discover here, maybe those boundaries are hardwired for a reason.

Taste is obviously subjective, and some simply display the lack of it. But effective advertising also works through the mutualism of branding and marketing – when the message truly matches its motive, and how that can resonate with its target audience.

It’s when brand strategy is amazingly misaligned with marketing that advertisements truly do go horribly wrong. Here are some of them.

Dr. Pepper Ten, or when diet sodas replaced sugar with sexism

When products are specifically gendered, it usually means that it tailors to their specific needs. You could say that male-targeted products are like that – except that, most of the time, it’s nothing more than machismo bluster backed by showy gunmetal-coloured marketing.

Usually that would apply to cosmetic products (roll-on deodorants, anyone?) or clothing.
But what happens when it crosses over to soft drinks?

Dr Pepper Ten is a classic example of mismatching specific consumer tastes with a ubiquitous product.

The Dr Pepper Ten drink was introduced in 2011 as a diet version of the drink that was specifically tailored for men. The “ten” in its name referred to the ten calories that were contained in the soda, which made it a diet Dr Pepper. Except a Diet Dr Pepper already exists.

While the resulting drink might also be a poor showing of their R&D department, it was its ads that drew the ire of consumers.

One showed a man in the woods doing “manly” things, like riding a canoe with a bear and single-handedly carrying a tree trunk. The other took a more direct approach, warning viewers that the drink is “not for women” amidst blockbuster gunfights.

Then-Executive VP of Marketing Jim Trebilcock explained that the ads were meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but its message – that this drink was for men, and no one else – was unsurprisingly not received well.

The attempt at associating women with diet drinks is naturally sexist. Market research seems to show that there are men who prefer products that are “untouched” by women. But is an exclusionary method the way to go? The fact is that such a drink will only appeal to men who subscribe to a type of gendered masculinity, making the brand look reductionist in its approach to reach out to specific target groups.

It may be easy now to denounce a decisively tongue-in-cheek approach that’s also terribly off-colour. In 2022, optics can be gauged by crowdsourced opinions on social media, and brands stand to benefit from appealing to wider demographics.

There is a way to target men without reducing women to stereotypes – selling hypermasculinity can be done in jest when it’s not punching down. The Dr Pepper Ten campaign simply missed the mark in realizing that.

The Crypto Revolution, or when celebrity endorsements become questionable

Over the past decade, it has been shown that the brand method of celebrity endorsements have expanded into an industry of its own: the mighty influencer. Celebrities aren’t just roped in to endorse a product – celebrities are now made out of association with aspirational brands and lifestyles.

If anything, the past few years have also shown that celebrity endorsements do not always equate to a quality product or service. Fyre Fest is the most infamous of all, but we will look at something more recent.

That’s right, we’re talking about crypto.

In the relentless new world of cryptocurrencies, celebrities are getting in on the action. Instead of associating themselves with established brands, they are partnering with emerging names across the market.

Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon are in the Bored Ape Yacht Club, Snoop Dogg has steered Death Row Records towards becoming the “first-ever” NFT record label. Justin Bieber, Gwyneth Paltrow and a dozen other celebrities invested in a crypto payment app.

The crypto market can indeed promise riches for some, but it is nonetheless a high-stakes environment where losses can be truly colossal.

These losses are also driven by messaging that aggressively encourages people to join in by utilizing imagery that inspires ambition, especially in an era of an impending recession. Enter Matt Damon.

A one-minute ad appeared on YouTube, social media, and countless cinema screens across the world. Damon is seen walking through a computer-generated hall, filled with mankind’s greatest achievements.

It appeals to the viewer by illustrating feats alongside the misses, urging them to step into the next frontier – that’s crypto, if it wasn’t made obvious – with four simple words: “Fortune Favours The Brave”.

While not everyone agrees on crypto, the ad was universally panned not just because of its vague messaging, but its wide distribution – US$100 million was poured into the campaign.

Not everyone understands how financial markets work, and the advertisement relied on a message that challenged ordinary people to take on financial risk, without divulging what those risks were.

Criticism came from all corners, even finance and tech – the two strongholds of crypto. The act of getting a universally-recognized Hollywood star like Matt Damon promising “untold riches” to a mass audience seems even more dubious now when the crypto market has reported heavy losses this year, with more to come.

Crypto.com is an exchange company utilized by traders both new and experienced. An ad – widely distributed, seen and talked about – achieved its viewership goals but ultimately misrepresented its product to a general audience.

It’s a tool that requires experience, technique and a fair amount of financial resources in order to benefit from it. It’s why frameworks are in place to regulate ads that promote gambling services. Celebrity endorsements add flash and authenticity, but without proper content oversight, it may lead to darker horizons.

E-gnorance, or when digital payments went backwards

A key message that’s often communicated in both government and corporate campaigns is racial harmony – the idea that four main races make up the peaceful diversity of Singapore’s people.

Using it in an advertisement brings the idea that a product or service is meant for everyone. This is where representation matters, and this is where NETS’ E-Pay campaign faltered.

E-Pay set out with the simplest intention: their new digital payment service is made easy for all Singaporeans. “E-Pay, the easy way.”

In the ad, racial harmony, of course, came into play. Except, it was brought to life by one person: actor Dennis Chew, a man of Chinese descent. If you have yet to see the ad, or the furore that came after, you can imagine how it turned out.

Chew portrays all four races: Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian. In the ill-advised spirit of authenticity, Chew donned brownface to appear as a brown-skinned office worker.

Brownface is a technique used in the past when actors of lighter complexion portrayed characters of a different race. It has roots in film, TV and theatre when brownface was employed to depict stereotypes, with actors often mistaking (or deliberately substituting) realism for ridicule.

There’s no need to mention the public reaction, because it’s quite self-evident. But to sum it up: minorities were up in arms, activists amplified calls to take the ad down. In other words, it created publicity for all the wrong reasons.

Sensitivity is always key. Diversity is not a checklist, but an opportunity to collaborate with a wider spectrum of talent.


Advertising campaigns are most effective when their message tells a story not just about the brand or product, but of the times it exists in.

For Dr Pepper and Crypto.com, they attempted to grapple with a wider landscape of culture and sentiment. It’s something that people are often exposed to daily via social media, however fragmented it might be through algorithms and types of platforms.

In a bid to seize a cultural moment, however, these ads lost sight of a timeless element that makes a good ad: how does it truly benefit the audience’s lives?

In the case of E-Pay, it sought to promote a new payment system that’s more inclusive and accessible – in the pursuit of that, it united its unique selling point with a tongue-in-cheek approach to racial harmony that sadly revealed a painful blindspot. It became divisive, to say the least.

To adopt a message that would resonate beyond brand recognition requires a brand strategy to be authentically aligned with it, not honed in like a Pepsi can, and one that affords some sensitivity towards its audience.

Messaging carries meaning. In an age where audiences are well-educated on the proliferation and influence of advertising, it just might help to balance creativity with some thoughtfulness, for their sake.

Let’s talk about realigning your advertising and marketing efforts.


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