Top 5 Cringeworthy Marketing Mistakes

The Top 5
5. Solving Racism with Kendall 🏴
4. Coke is a Feeling 🥤
3. Fish > Death 🐟
2. Arab Spring Ignorance 👳
1. White Power PSP 🎮

As most people do, I made my first on-the-job mistake in my very first job.

I was a blueprint copier for an architect who ate a pile of onions on his meatball sub every single day for lunch and whose office and breath still reeked of such when I arrived after school.

My job was simple. I put a blueprint page in a huge copying machine, the rollers fed it through, the page came back out a level higher on the copying machine, and I folded it back into another set of rollers.

How this copied a blueprint page, I have no idea, but I do know the job paid better than McDonald’s, where many of my friends worked, and I could listen to my Walkman while I did it.

Page after page after page of some beautifully designed homes passed through my hands into the copier, and it didn’t take long on any given day for my mind to wander.

That, evidently, was a great way to jam up the copier so significantly that the onion-breathed architect was more than a bit upset.


In the grand scheme of things, that’s not as bad of an on-the-job mistake as, say, the one a pilot or a surgeon or a roller coaster attendant could make. And it’s certainly less public than the mistakes I could make as a marketing guy.

Alas, we’re closing in on the Fourth of July, the day on which we celebrate the freedoms we have as Americans, which includes the freedom for marketing people to make That Marketing Guy’s Top 5 Cringeworthy Marketing Mistakes.

No. 5: Kendall Jenner Solves Racism

Brands that try to capitalize on divisive social movements invite scorn, a lesson Pepsi has learned more than once. In 2017, during the height of tensions created by the murder by white police officers of George Floyd, the soda company ran an ad in which Jenner goes to the front of a protest march styled to look very much like a Black Lives Matter gathering and steps in between supporters and police officers.

She then hands the cop a Pepsi, and all is right with the world.

Can we please send some Pepsi to Putin?

The spot was blasted on social media, parodied on Saturday Night Live and played a role in the resignation of PepsiCo president Brad Jakeman, who said the spot was “the most gut-wrenching experience of my career.”

Lesson to be learned: Do not trivialize important social movements by implying your product or service can change the world unless it has, in fact, changed the world.

No. 4: The Obligatory New Coke Thing

No marketing-gaffes list is complete without putting the creation of New Coke somewhere on it. The reason it comes in at No. 4 and not No. 1 on this list is that so much context has been lost over the years.

To recap: Coke introduced its first formula change in 99 years on April 23, 1985, and people lost their everlovin’ minds. So disastrous was this new product launch that the Coke we’re all familiar with came back just 79 days later.

Coke execs didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to make people mad. The company had conducted taste tests with more than 200,000 cola drinkers and found the new formula was overwhelmingly preferred to the original one. Not only that, but, equally important for the company, cola drinkers preferred New Coke to Pepsi.

Ahhh, and therein lies the lesson.

Lesson to be learned: People make product choices based on feelings, not data. In Coke’s case, they’d done their market research well. The data showed people preferred their new recipe. What the research didn’t show (because Coke didn’t ask) was what Coke made its customers feel. People develop bonds with their brands, and bonds are based on consistency.

Check out what Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS Evening News and, at the time, one of the preeminent voices of America and for Americans, said in 1985 just prior to the launch.

“Death and taxes and pictures of George Washington on the dollar bill. Those are among the few constants in a changing world. But now, another of those constants may be changing.”

Dan Rather

Did you catch that? Coke is on the level of death, taxes and the dollar bill as something fundamentally unchangeable in the eyes of Americans. Having a Coke was and is more about a feeling than a taste. Coke changing its formula was akin to the lovable family dog suddenly biting the hand of the child who had been its faithful companion since birth.

Just look at how Pepsi capitalized on the situation. Go to the 2:34 mark of this video. Pepsi equates the Coke change to a betrayal. “I stuck with them through three wars and a couple a’ dust storms, but this is too much.”

No. 3: Fish Eases the Pain of Death

OK, so now we’ve talked about how people make decisions on products based on feelings. That means marketers need to be responsible with the power they wield and not manipulate emotions.

McDonald’s ran a spot in the UK about a boy whose dad had died. He asks his mum what pops was like, and the obviously oblivious mother tells him all the ways he is not like his dad. Dad was good with the ladies (Junior is awkward.) Dad was tall and strong. (Junior is short and has soft hands, evidently.) Dad was impeccably dressed and always had shiny shoes. (Junior’s about to move to Seattle and start the grunge movement.) Dad was great at sports. (Junior looks like a drunk monkey trying to kick a soccer ball).

Just when we’re starting to wonder whether Junior is actually Dad’s child, we’re hit with this “Ahhhh, of course they’re related” moment: Mom tells Junior that he and Dad both dug the Filet-o-Fish.

Smiles abound and all is right in Junior’s world.

Lesson to be learned: Don’t try to exploit grief to sell sandwiches. There’s a fine line between connecting with your audience’s emotions and creating unrealistic scenarios that absolutely no one can related to.

No. 2: Kenneth Cole and Cairo

During the Arab Spring early in the last decade, millions took to the streets protesting their oppressive governments. Leaders were toppled. Thousands of people died. And fashion brand Kenneth Cole tweeted this:

Fact is, at least 840 people had died in Cairo during its uprising. It’s probably not a good idea to market your stuff off civilian deaths. But Kenneth Cole learned its lesson when it was lambasted for the tweet, right?


While they did say “We weren’t intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment,” they didn’t understand the significance of another historical moment just two years later, during the armed revolt in Syria when the discussion was whether to send U.S. troops to intervene.

Tweeted KC: “‘Boots on the ground’ or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear”


No. 1: Sony’s White Power Ad

America’s racial history is complicated, to say the least. Marketers who don’t recognize this and keep it at the forefront of their minds when creating ads do so at their own peril. Even better than keeping racism in mind is having a diverse marketing department with people who might be in a better position to raise an eyebrow when they see a proof of an ad like this:

What Sony was trying to do was market the launch of its Playstation Portable device, which happened to be offered in the color white. Choosing to market that color choice at all is a questionable decision in and of itself. Choosing an image of an angry white woman grabbing a frightened-looking Black person by the face? Yeah, probably not the best way to go about this.

Said a Sony representative: “The images that were used in the campaign were intended solely to highlight the contrast between the different colors available for the PSP.”

What’s the saying about the choice of pavement material for the road to hell?

Lesson to be learned: Be aware of your blind spots. I am a middle-aged white dude from a relatively affluent suburban New York background. There wasn’t a whole lot of diversity where I grew up. I then went to college at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. ‘Nuff said about the diversity there.

It would be incredibly foolish of me to not take extra care to educate myself on relevant racial history and contemporary racial issues so that I can incorporate sensitivities to them into what I do as That Marketing Guy. It would also be in my best interest to surround myself with a diverse group of fellow marketing folks who can see the stuff that I will never be able to see, no matter how hard I try.

So there you have it. That Marketing Guy’s Top 5 Cringeworthy Marketing Mistakes. What would you put on this list to make it a Top 10? Email me at

John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at or (352) 226-5852.

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