You Cannot Skip these 10 Controversial Ads

“Playing it safe can be the most dangerous thing in the world, because you’re presenting people with an idea they’ve seen before, and you won’t have impact.” — Bill Bernbach, Co Founder of DDB

Do ‘safe’ ads grab as many eyeballs as controversial ads? If they did then this post would be about them. Some brands have come up with outrageous ways to create a long-lasting impact on the audience. Isn’t that a dangerous move, Bill? Some surely make you stop and stare, while some are disastrous and disturbing. You’d wonder what the agency was doing when they came up with that idea in the first place.

I’ll break that down for you. The agency knows what it’s up to and why it’s going ahead with a particular campaign. They do take bold steps to garner attention and publicity so that a decade later, you and I can remember what they did and write a post about them. That’s Shockvertising for you. It is a type of advertising that deliberately, rather than inadvertently, startles and offends its audience by violating norms for social values and personal ideals.

Here are 10 such controversial ads which left the audience shocked and while some failed, some saw a major boost in sales.

1.Benetton Unhate

The first ad I’d like to shed light on is one of the most controversial ads of all time. The campaign features a range of world leaders sharing a kiss with their adversaries. One image, which depicted Pope Benedict XVI kissing a top Egyptian imam on the lips, was quickly withdrawn from the campaign after being condemned by the Vatican. Benetton shared that the idea behind this campaign was to combat hatred, to promote love, a feeling of brotherhood. Irrespective of the backlash, this campaign went on to win the Press Grand Prix at the Cannes Ad Festival. You can like it, hate it but you can’t ignore it. That’s what makes this ad worthy of the award.

2. Nivea — White is Purity

Everything about this ad is WRONG. This ad was posted on Nivea’s Facebook page with the caption “Keep it clean, keep it bright. Don’t let anything ruin it.” As if the racist connotation isn’t disturbing enough, this ad was aimed at its audience in the Middle East. To make this worse, white supremacist groups praised the ad, and stirred an unwanted debate. Eventually, Nivea apologized, took down the ad, and realized that the ad was offensive.

3. Dove — Lotion ad

Speaking of racism, how can I not mention Dove for not only committing this blunder once but twice in the past. It’s a shame that they feel it’s okay to roll out a campaign that transforms you into a newer, ‘purer’ version of you. Much like Nivea, this tampered definition of ‘purity’ is what gets to me. This leads to mental health issues. People feel like they’re not good enough and cannot meet the societal standard of beauty. This ad shows a black woman removing her top and turning white after using Dove’s body lotion. Not only did they receive a lot of backlashes, but there’s also a tweet that says “Okay Dove, One racist ad makes you guilty, two racist ads make you suspect” The other ad shows yet another transition from black to a white woman after using the lotion. Dove expressed regret for the insensitive ad and took it down. Can’t forgive or forget this though.

4. Protein World — Beach Body Ready

Just like white signifies purity, slim signifies a ready beach-body. I’d like to ask again, Who decides this? Where do those who don’t fit in this category go? They slide into depression. 750,000 people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, women in particular. 89% of that amount, to be precise — with a prevalence in teenage women. Ads like these only make it worse. Protein World’s idea was to promote their supplements to those who needed the perfect beach-body. The ad was heavily criticized by people on social media but it generated a lot of buzz and grabbed eyeballs. The company made a profit of £1 million from the £250,000 they spent on the campaign and the sales shot up. Besides the offensive body-shaming ad, their comments on social media were rude and sarcastic too. One girl shared her negative comments on Twitter to which they replied with a question “Why make your insecurities our problem?” That’s just a sick move.

5. Tuff Shoes

25 years ago, Tuff shoes published an ad that was way ahead of its time in Indian advertising. The ad featured nude Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman, wearing nothing but shoes and a python wrapped around them. There’s sex appeal and then there’s unnecessary flex appeal. This is the latter. What is the snake even doing there? They were charged a court case for indecent behaviour and another case filed against this ad was under the Wildlife Protection Act for illegal use of the python and cruelty on animals. The legal proceeding lasted for 14 years until the court declared the accused as not guilty in 2009. Soman recently shared this ad on his Instagram profile to see how Gen Z would react to it in 2020. What’s your take on this?

6. Cadila ad

Here’s another blast from the past. Cadila is a swiss innerwear brand that wanted to tap into the Indian market. The print ad featuring Bipasha Basu and Dino Morea was taken down after it received backlash from women organizations. Dino was seen pulling off Bipasha Basu’s underwear with his teeth. It was indecent and inappropriate for Indian audiences back then. There are other examples where agencies went a little too far with sex appeal at a time when society wasn’t ready for it. Kamasutra Condom’s TVC featuring Pooja Bedi and Marc Robinson also was taken off air for being too sensuous and bold.

7. Dolce & Gabbana — Gang rape ads

The Italian luxury fashion house is known to be surrounded by controversy. Be it the bold, provocative ads, or social media comments about celebrities and politics. What’s common to most ads is the objectification of gender. This ad glorifies rape culture. In 2007 they released this ad, depicting a woman being pinned-down by oily, semi-naked men. It was banned by Spanish and Italian Publications. They made it worse by releasing an ad on the same idea but reversing the roles and glorifying BDSM.

Couldn’t get worse than this. Put a full stop already.

8. Tom Ford — Sexual Graphics

I’m sure by now you understand what Shockvertising means and if not, then have a look at this ad. The ads show an unidentified woman with the perfume placed in front and in between her private body parts. The highly objectionable ads were removed from websites. The perfume is for men and as we know that sex sells, the ad has no men but it has what men want placed exactly where they want it. Irrespective of the backlash it received, the sales increased in comparison to the year before. Tom Ford is very candid about his views “I don’t think expressing what nature intended you to be is anything but powerful. My women are not sitting there waiting for someone, they’re taking charge. Doesn’t matter whether they’re naked — they’re powerful, they’re smart, and you’re not going to get them if they don’t want you.” Sorry to burst your bubble mate, but not everyone thinks like that. That’s not how you justify objectification and obscene visuals. Moving on.

9. Dupont — Child wrapped in Cellophane Paper

Suffocating babies in cellophane is child abuse. The brand wanted to make a point by showcasing how babies are cute and the best thing in life BUT they do not come in cellophane. That’s an awful copy. This was rolled out in 1954 when plastic bags weren’t a thing in american culture. Maybe at the time, they found this cute. But now that we look back at it, it’s unacceptable.

10. Nike — Colin Kaepernick

I saved the best for the last because Nike is one of the best brands for sportswear and undoubtedly a winner with its advertising campaigns. Here’s how Nike hit the nail on the head with this brilliant ad.

Everything about the ad is on point so where does the controversy lie? In 2018, Nike launched this advert featuring the American quarterback Colin Kaepernick who at the time was known for protesting over the American national anthem during football games. He was protesting racial inequality and police brutality. People called him anti-national and took to social media posting pictures of burning their Nike products using the hashtag #JustBurnIt. The ad pays a tribute to those who ‘dream crazy’. It went on to win Emmy for the best commercial. Nike made over $6 Billion in sales. Speaking of Nike, the best book I read this year is Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, creator of Nike.

Hope these ads left you speechless and got you hooked on what sells and what doesn’t. You got to be gutsy and sometimes take the road less travelled by. It will make all the difference. If not, it’ll make it to my next post.


K 🌻

Spent a decade writing in my journal, now I’m here.