Mike Fromowitz
Feb 9, 2017

Hall of shame: More multicultural brand blunders

It’s baffling how often even major companies continue to get their messages wrong.

Hall of shame: More multicultural brand blunders

We live in an era of globalization and fluid national borders. Large waves of immigrants—including South Asians and Chinese to Canada, Hispanics to the US, Asians to the UK, North Africans to France and Arabs to Germany—are expected to greatly change the multicultural mix of key consumer markets for generations to come.

And advertising that appeals to these different cultural and ethnic identities has become a vital part of the corporate marketing arsenal. But ethnicity-oriented marketing can backfire and even turn multicultural consumers against a product or service if the strategy is wrong.

It’s baffling how often even major companies get their advertising messages wrong. Some try to be hip or funny. They put out an ad or sell a product, only to find out it is offensive to countless prospective customers. A popular product at home can flop overseas if language and cultural differences are not considered. When marketing brands internationally, a company must consider whether imagery is offensive or product names translate to something negative. Some businesses have learned this lesson the hard way.

An archive of stories about APAC brands stepping
into controversies, facing crises not of their own doing,
or self-harming with facepalm-worthy missteps.

When businesses attempt to reach customers from another culture, a crucial aspect for the success of that venture lies in the understanding of cross-cultural differences. If the people in charge of these ventures, or their advertising agencies are not aware of the impact on cross-cultural relations, the misunderstandings, hurt feelings and communication errors that occur often will cause serious damage to those efforts.

A few years ago, I put together a list of all-time great screwups (see Cultural blunders: Brands gone wrong), which I'm told remains one of the most persistently popular posts on the Campaign Asia-Pacific website [100 percent true. -Ed].

The past few years have been chock full of all-new cringe-worthy gaffes by brands, retailers and restaurants, many of which had them scrambling to apologize and contain the PR damage. Here is a look back at some those marketing and merchandising blunders, in no particular order. 

Yellow Pages lands in the soup

This Yellow Pages campaign ran in Toronto subways in 2015 and also made it onto a CBC radio talkshow. But for all the wrong reasons. Bi Bim Bap is a rice dish. Yet the OOH poster shows noodles. As a Facebook commentator pointed out: "Think about having the copy about the best pasta in town and the icon is pizza. It's that weird.”

Tesco tries to bring home the bacon...on Ramadan

The Tesco store on Liverpool Street in London donated to our library of multicultural blunders with this bad-taste blunder during Ramadan in 2015. Just imagine: An aisle display featuring Smokey Bacon Flavour chips with the message Ramadan Mubarak.

If that’s not bad enough, here’s the other blunder they made. The store is not far from Whitechapel's East London Mosque, one of the largest Muslim places of worship in Europe. Amused Muslim shoppers saw the display and immediately sent out messages across the twitter universe. Shortly thereafter, the bacon flavoured Pringles were moved, and to Tesco’s credit, it acknowledged the mistake and issued a statement:

We are proud to offer a wide range of meals and products to meet the needs of our customers during Ramadan. We recognize these Pringles weren’t in the most suitable place and our store colleagues have now moved them.

Starbucks' "Race Together" campaign

The coffee giant had good intentions in March 2015 when it launched a short-lived campaign encouraging customers to engage in discussions about race relations with baristas. CEO Howard Schultz has never shied away from involving his company in controversial debates, whether those debates are about same-sex marriage, or gun control, or US government gridlock. In a video addressing Starbucks’ diverse workforce of nearly 200,000 people, Schultz dismissed the notion that race was too hot a topic business-wise for Starbucks to tackle. But the move earned Starbucks some ridicule, with many people feeling the issue is too hot to address in this manner. Starbucks dropped the campaign after six days.

Shooting a 14-year-old Nobel Prize laureate to sell mattresses

In 2012, at the age of 14, a Taliban gunman climbed onto a bus Malala Yousafzai was riding in and shot her in the head. Though she nearly died in the attack, Yousafzai recovered, and courageously returned as an advocate of girls' education rights. She has become internationally famous for her activism in favour of women having the same educational opportunities as men, both in her native Pakistan and abroad.

Now imagine depicting Malala Yousafzai, now the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, being shot by the Taliban in this 2014 advertisement for Kurl-On mattresses, by Ogilvy in India.

The concept is that Kurl-On mattresses help you "Bounce back." In it, a cartoon version of Yousafzai is seen being shot with a rifle. The ad then shows several iterations of Yousafzai as she recovers in a hospital and ultimately goes on to win an award for her advocacy. Along the way, she falls on a Kurl-on mattress and "bounces back.”

Other ads in the series featured Steve Jobs being ousted by Apple and Gandhi being tossed off a train for refusing to move from first class.

One can only imagine people in the creative department of Ogilvy saying, “We need to get a woman in this campaign, someone like Malala. Which is how the whole thing fell apart. The ad was the ultimate trivialization of a horrific event.

Ogilvy officially apologized for the ad, saying:

The recent Kurl-On ads from our India office are contrary to the beliefs and professional standards of Ogilvy & Mather and our clients. We deeply regret this incident and want to personally apologize to Malala Yousafzai and her family. We are investigating how our standards were compromised in this case and will take whatever corrective action is necessary. In addition, we have launched a thorough review of our approval and oversight processes across our global network to help ensure that our standards are never compromised again.

Cadillac’s American dream is a nightmare

French people are lazy. America is the best country in the world. You’re rich because you’re an American and Americans just work harder. if you can’t afford one, it’s because you’re lazy… and un-American.

This one-minute commercial essentially insults everyone who can’t afford a Cadillac by implying they’re just too lazy to work for it.

It also implies only Americans are worthy of owning Cadillac automobiles. And it would all work a lot better if these commercials weren’t readily available on the Internet, meaning that anyone in the world (including the French) can view them. It’s just difficult to imagine any company trying to tap into an international market with this sort of commercial on the air.

And in case you’re wondering about the fallout from this sort of smug “members only” style of commercial, here’s the Ford response ad. That’s right, the Cadillac commercial was so widely despised that it launched an ad campaign for a rival company.

Hitler Ice Cream (Yes, you read that right)

Even for the most dedicated of ice cream lovers this multicultural marketing blunder may prove a little hard to swallow. It definitely shows how differences in culture can be vast.

As shown when the story got global coverage in 2015, the brand’s cartons were adorned with a photo of a stern-looking Adolf Hitler dressed in a brown blazer. India’s Congress leader Shashi Tharoor tweeted, “Height of tastelessness; Indian ice-cream named after Hitler. Would the Germans name a sausage after Godse?”

Neeraj Kumar, owner of Meerut-based MVF Products, which manufactured the cones, said they were named after an uncle who was nicknamed “Hitler” because of his quick temper. That may be, but it still demonstrates not only a lack of education in terms of European history but also a lack of sensitivity. Vastly inappropriate. 

Offensive Ford ads

This extremely offensive blunder took place in mid-2013 when a series of sexually offensive ads were created by JWT India showing women bound and gagged in the trunk of Ford hatchback. Whether these ads were accepted by the client or not, they were were uploaded to the website Ads of the World.

One of the ads depicted reality TV star Paris Hilton with what appeared to be Kim Kardashian and her two sisters tied up in the trunk of her car. The tagline: “Leave your worries behind with Figo’s extra large boot.” Another (above) showed Silvio Berlusconi, former prime minister of Italy, who was embroiled in a sex scandal of his own. In it, he’s flashing a victory sign while three half-dressed women struggle against their bonds.

What really made this one of the biggest blunders ever was the fact that the controversial posters were uploaded for public view at a time when India was in crisis over sexual assaults on women. The brutal gang rape of a 23-year old student in New Delhi drew worldwide attention. The woman died from her injuries several weeks later.

The fallout from Ford’s India ads included an apology from the automaker and the sacking of the ad agency staff who created the offensive ad. An agency insider was quoted as saying that the client was presented with the advert weeks before the crisis broke out, and the staff were made a scapegoat. The swift dismissal of the JWT India employees responsible for the ads was a sign that the agency was trying to make good on the blunder. The automaker didn't fire the agency; there's a deep partnership between WPP and Ford, and obviously, the issue was located in one place, India.

A Food Basics flyer gets it all wrong

Food Basics is a grocery store that operates over 115 stores across the province of Ontario in Canada with the positioning of "always more for less”. To reach out to ethnic communities, the store promoted an offer in one of its printed flyers with the notion of celebrating Baisakhi (a Sikh religious holiday). Their big mistake? Promoting Halal chicken, a Muslim product.

Had the store's marketing people known more about the community it was targeting, they would not have targeted Sikhs in this manner, as Sikhs do not consume meat or alcohol on Baisakhi. In fact, Halal meat is forbidden for practicing Sikhs, and many would consider it insulting when it is offered to them.

Nike commits cultural faux pas

In 2013, Nike released a set of women's sports gear inspired by traditional tatau—tattoos from the southwest Pacific. But the international sports brand made a cultural faux pas and ended up pulling the product: the women's leggings created the appearance that the wearer had a traditional Samoan tattoo, the pe'a, which is reserved for men.

Pasifika blog sites attracted hundreds of comments after Nike released the leggings, sports bras, jumpsuits and singlets. Some people were unhappy about the use of the designs, which are viewed as sacred. Others mocked the women's leggings, calling them manly and inappropriate for women.

A blogger on the One Samoana Facebook page called Nike's use of the tatau an "ugly exploitation of culture”. Another noted: "To the outside world it's just a design. But to my Polynesian people, it's sacred.”

How to avoid shooting yourself in the foot

Stop and think about how many different cultures you come into contact with at work. Our world's diversity is what makes marketing so fascinating. When you take time to understand this diversity, you show respect for other people's cultures. Remember, your audience is more than a collection of stereotypes and anecdotal evidence — you need to understand how they speak and what they care about to reach them on a personal level. If you do, they won’t just remember your ad; they’ll reward your brand with lifelong loyalty.

Mike Fromowitz., a longtime Asia-Pacific ad man, is now partner and chief creative officer of Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising in Toronto. He is also the author of the one of the most consistently popular articles on this website, a 2013 post entitled, "Cultural blunders: Brands gone wrong".


Campaign Asia

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