When Ads Cross the Line and the Impact on PR

In the past few years, mass advertising has definitely taken an edgier turn. In an effort to break through advertising noise, many companies have rolled out controversial campaigns that have garnered media attention, but have also raised a few eyebrows. As PepsiCo, Ford, and General Motors recently demonstrated, it is possible to push the envelope too far by developing commercials that cross the bounds of moral decency.

Personally, I’ve always been a fan of edgy, humor-driven advertisements. I’ve particularly enjoyed Skittles’ zany, offbeat “Taste the Rainbow” campaign over the past few years. The content in this long-running series of commercials can be absurd but not offensive. In my opinion, it is the perfect example of a campaign that is distinctive, disruptive, and falls within the (relative) bounds of good taste.

Now, let’s discuss advertisements gone wrong. PepsiCo recently released an ill-conceived Mountain Dew commercial in which a battered woman is asked to pick out her assailant from a police lineup of black men and one verbally abusive goat. It ignited a media firestorm and is now referred to as “the most racist ad of all time.” The company was forced to pull the advertisement and issued an apology to outraged consumers. Despite this desperate attempt to backtrack, public opinion of the company has taken an undeniable nosedive.

Another major advertising blunder came courtesy of Hyundai Europe, in the form of a commercial entitled “Pipe Job.” This advertisement shows a depressed man attempting to commit suicide in his garage by blocking his car’s tail pipe, however, thanks to Hyundai’s clean emissions technology, the attempt fails. The advertisement was considered a major fail as well, with thousands of incredulous viewers publicly bashing the company for its insensitivity. Several consumers took it upon themselves to post emotional stories on the company’s social media accounts, revealing the loss of loved ones to suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The ad was pulled and an apology subsequently issued, but again it was too little, too late.

These companies’ advertisement campaigns make you wonder: Have these companies consulted with its public relations agency and/or department before embarking on these disastrous campaigns?

The fallout from these public relations crises stress the importance of having great internal and external communication between PR and advertising departments. Public relations specialists are trained to understand the many different ways a target audience can react to a specific message and trained on brand reputation management. Therefore, they are able to effectively screen advertising content for any material that could potentially damage the brand’s reputation.

It is always a good idea to make sure that advertising is aligned with all levels of an organization, particularly public relations and social media. Also, advertising executives should be more concerned with making sure that their messages are appropriate for the company’s target audience, rather than abandoning common sense for the sake of over-the-top creativity.

However, times are changing, and so are the traditional boundaries of what is media-appropriate. Consumers are demanding more from advertisers when it comes to entertainment, and are increasingly choosey about the media they consume. In a cluttered market with thousands of wacky, attention-getting advertisements, it can be easy to lose sight of a brand’s ultimate message in the quest for notoriety.

So in the end, who is to blame here? Advertisers who push things too far, or an audience who is always looking for the latest and greatest in advertising? Either way, advertisers should always consult with their internal or external communication department to prevent media backlash on advertising campaigns from companies like PepsiCo, Ford, and General Motors.

Related Posts

New Client Spotlight: DetraPel

We are thrilled to announce our latest client, DetraPel. DetraPel is a nanotechnology-based chemical manufacturer and distributor of safe, non-toxic, superhydrophobic liquid-repellent coatings. Based in

Read More »


At Zozimus, it’s important to us that we achieve great results, while still maintaining authenticity and thorough strategy for your brand. Our team is committed to working hard to make your dreams come true, while not taking ourselves too seriously in the process. We’re ready to dive into your next campaign together.