Carefully chosen words are the backbone of marketing campaigns. They allow you to get your message across, give your company a voice and explain why customers need you.
Make a statement. Stand up for something. Show the world why your brand is unique.
But... try not to be a jerk about it.
We all like to hear about catastrophic failures, partly because it’s entertaining but it’s also a great way to learn what not to do! Let’s look at some bold ad copy that could have been a little gentler and see what we can learn.
Lesson 1: Don’t insult your customers
Highlighting the problems that your product can fix is a common way to persuade people to try it, but it’s important to use the right tone. Get it wrong, and you end up humiliating or criticising your potential customers.
In 2012, skincare brand Proactiv received backlash for an advert with the text: “Got acne? Just ask your boyfriend what to do. Oh, that's right, you don't have a boyfriend.”
While many skincare and cosmetics brands could be said to play on people’s insecurities, this one doesn’t exactly promote a healthy message. It also just comes off as pretty mean!
In 2011, The Economist tried to increase their female readership with an advert that read: “Why should women read The Economist? They shouldn’t. Accomplished, influential people should read us. People like you.”
While you can kind of see what they were going for, there were surely many better ways to make the statement more clearly. Something along the lines of: “Why should women read The Economist? Because it’s for accomplished, influential people.” It’s not perfect, but it does a better job of not doing women down.
Lesson 2: Don’t joke about serious issues
Spirit Airlines got in trouble in 2010 for an advert that seemingly made light of the BP oil spill, with the line “Check Out The Oil On Our Beaches.” Although the airline claimed that the message was misinterpreted, many weren’t convinced.
Spirit had already caused controversy with previous ad campaigns, including one that advertised “Strikingly Low Fares” in reference to their own pilots’ strike.
In 2013, Hyundai launched an advert in the UK that was supposed to celebrate the fact that their sedan doesn’t produce harmful emissions. In a fascinating lapse of judgement, they chose to show this through a man’s failed attempt to take his own life and the slogan: “Our cars are so safe you can’t even commit suicide in them.”
Being bold is one thing but belittling serious issues is just going to anger and alienate customers. Remember that you are selling to real people with real lives, and experiences both good and bad. If there’s any possibility that what you’re planning might cause offence or evoke a traumatic reaction, you should scrap the idea.
Lesson 3: Don’t forget how your words sound to customers
Creating a marketing campaign doesn’t happen overnight and can take months or years. It’s easy to lose sight of how things might look or sound to people that weren’t present in all of your brainstorming sessions.
US department store Bloomingdale’s caused outrage in 2015 with a Christmas catalogue that cheerfully suggested “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.” Understandably, this was poorly received.
Bloomingdale’s were trying to be fun and lighthearted, adding an attempt at cheeky humour to their catalogue. The result was an advert in poor taste that got them accused of suggesting date rape as a festive activity.
In 2015 Bud Light launched their Up For Whatever campaign. This was accompanied by the tagline: “The perfect beer for removing the word “no” from your vocabulary for the night.” Yikes. I’m sure you can see what’s wrong with that...
The KEY TAKEAWAY
Trying to be fun, quirky and different in your copy is great, but always think through the implications of what you’re saying. Make sure you run the ad copy past as many diverse people as you can to highlight areas of friction that might have been missed.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Claire has over 10 years' copywriting experience across a range of print and digital media, working with a variety of styles, formats and tones of voice. She has written as part of an in-house team client side, as well as at marketing agencies based in the East Midlands. Claire's services include copywriting, copy editing, content creation and proofreading.