Oct 24, 2016
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Top 10 Most Controversial Ads That Got Top Brands in Trouble

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Advertising is all about capturing attention, but there are good ways and bad ways to do that. Sometimes, ad agencies decide to push the envelope until it rips open, and these 10 advertising campaigns illustrate what happens when controversy is courted.

10.American Apparel

Though American Apparel has frequently come up against criticism for their ads, the brand really captured the attention of the public in 2005 with their all but transparent advertisement for something as seemingly simple as tube socks.

Featuring the pornographic film actress Lauren Phoenix, the ad shows Phoenix hiding her near nakedness behind a pair of fluffy tube socks, with inset photos showing her face as she supposedly conveys her excitement.

While the company often opts to gain the approval of their fans with their tongue-in-cheek ‘tude, the approach that many of their ads have displayed towards women has left people wondering how progressive they really are.

9.Carl’s Jr.


This American fast food restaurant chain has opted to heat up the reputation of their burgers with not just one ad campaign, but several featuring the likes of Paris Hilton, Kate Upton and Kim Kardashian that indulgently embrace a host of scantily clad women.

In a blatant attempt to make burger’s seem sexy, the Spicy BBQ Six Dollar Burger ads shows socialite Paris Hilton sultrily washing a car in a flashy bikini as she eats a Spicy BBQ Six Dollar Burger.

While Carl’s Jr. certainly wasn’t the first nor will they be the last to exploit a women’s sexuality to sell something, they created a bit more fervour for the celebrities they used and the overt transparency of their execution.

8.SKYY Vodka

Owned by Gruppo Campari, SKYY Vodka is another company that has been synonymous with very suggestive and deceivingly sleek advertising that has managed to make a few tongues wag, but their SKYY SEXY advertisement took the cake as one of the most blatant in the company’s history.

Released in 2010, the ad featured a pair of red, patent leather, spike heeled boots wrapped around a SKYY Vodka bottle, which did not so much exist as an allusion to sex but a nearly complete execution of it. While SKYY’s ads have always been sleek and stylish, they’ve received much blow back for the consistent representation of women as submissive and merely ornamental in their advertisements.


Originally thought up by high fashion Italian clothing brand Sisley, this advertisement was quite controversial for its thinly veiled glamorization of drug use.

While the fashion industry is laid with claims of a highfalutin life in the first place, Sisley’s series of Fashion Junkie ads released in 2007 did little to dispel this by showing two models hover over a t-shirt, with the thin strap of it appearing like a line of cocaine as they attempt to ingest it.

As the ad goes beyond the merely suggestive, it was criticized for the impact it could have on young girls who look up to fashion brands and celebrity icons as an example of something they should want or be like.


Photographs of people kissing seems about as far from controversial as you can get, but socially conscious sportswear manufacturer Benetton managed to make a huge fuss in 2012 with their “Unhate” campaign.

The ads depicted world leaders on opposite ends of the political spectrum locking lips—one showed Barack Obama smooching Hugo Chavez, another had Pope Benedict XVI kissing Muslim imam Ahmed Mohammed el-Tayeb.

That last one earned the Italian company some serious blowback from the Vatican, but the campaign was successful enough to earn Benetton’s internal agency Fabrica Treviso top honors at the Cannes Ad Festival.

5.Humans For Animals

Animal rights organizations like PETA have long been known for shock tactics in their advertisements, but European group Humans For Animals pushed things to the limit in a series of ads in 2006.

The deftly Photoshopped ads took scenes of animal abuse and flipped the script, depicting an adult fur seal clubbing a human baby to death and a group of monkeys eating the brains out of a live human’s skull.

Pundits decried the intense imagery of the advertisements, and Humans For Animals no longer seems to be operational.

4.Dunkin’ Donuts

This campaign for Dunkin’ Donuts in Thailand caused uproar for its blackface make-up, which is reminiscent of 19th/20th century stereotypes for black people that are offensive symbols of a racist era.

CEO Nadim Salhani replied, “We’re not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don’t get it. What’s the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?”


This series of ads for Ford in India came just days after the country approved a tougher new law to punish sex crimes. Showcasing women tied up in the back of their cars the ads received a mass of complaints.

Created by individuals within JWT India, a unit of the world’s biggest advertising group WPP, it’s been reported that they did not go through the normal review and oversight process.

2.Mountain Dew

Argued as one of ‘the most racist commercials in history’ by Syracuse Professor Boyce Watkins, this Mountain Dew advert was created in collaboration with Odd Future’s Tyler the Creator.

The minute-long spot depicts a police officer goading a severely wounded white woman into picking out her attacker from a lineup of four black men (portrayed by other members of Odd Future) and a goat (voiced by Tyler himself).


If we’re honest, we can’t quite believe that this commercial for Hyundai was ever approved.

The advert for the Hyundai iX35 depicts a man who looks as if to be attempting suicide, but doesn’t succeed because the iX35′s emissions are, apparently, mainly comprised of water. It received mass complaints and was eventually pulled.

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