3 Culturally Insensitive Ads That Left Me (Close To) Speechless

As Valentine’s Day has quickly come and gone, I found this to be the perfect time of year for me to go on a binge-watching spree of Sex and the City. I mean how can I truly call myself a fashion aficionado without ever having seen such an iconic show?

However, after talking with Heather and about two seasons later (in only a matter of days), I couldn’t help but realize all the aspects of the show that haven’t aged as well as Carrie’s exquisite outfits, from the smoking inside restaurants to the all too casual drop of the c word.

It got me thinking about how culturally sensitive we’ve become as a society. Now I’m certainly not pinpointing this as a negative by any means, but it does make me realize that as we become progressive, marketing must become equally as progressive. One simple culturally insensitive remark, 30 second advertisement, or billboard can lead to the demise of a brand. Years of building a strong, positive brand identity can be compromised over a marketer’s miscalculations (no pressure though, right?).

So, I figured I would share three of my top marketing campaigns gone horribly awry.

  1. Pepsi x Kendall Jenner Commercial

Picture courtesy of NY Times, Pepsi Global via YouTube

I’m sure most of you remember watching this ad, or at least witnessing the huge backlash it sparked on social media. While Pepsi’s intentions were surely pure, the response was certainly not what they anticipated. The commercial features 21-year-old Kendall Jenner doing a photoshoot in the street when she sees a crowd of activists march past her. She dramatically rips off her blond wig and takes off her lipstick before joining in the protest. Seems like it has the potential to be inspiring, right? However, after picking up a can of Pepsi, the young supermodel is seen handing it to a nearby police officer who is trying to shut down the scene. Released during the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s no surprise that this commercial didn’t go over as smoothly as Pepsi had hoped. This is a prime example of a huge misjudgment that led to much criticism of both the brand and the model.

2. Heineken Light Beer Commercial


Picture courtesy of Business Insider

While I can argue that the Pepsi commercial had good intentions, there’s no getting around this blatantly racist Heineken light beer commercial. The commercial features a bartender sliding a bottle of beer past three black people before it eventually lands in the hands of white woman where the words “sometimes, lighter is better” appears. This really leaves me wondering who was put in charge of this commercial and how so many people approved the concept to be aired. To make it even more upsetting, this commercial is from 2018. Evidently, some brands will never learn. While Heineken claims they “missed the mark,” I think that would be considered a vast understatement.

  1. Bloomingdale’s Date Rape Ad

Picture courtesy of USA Today

Lastly, let’s momentarily bring back Bloomingdale’s print advertisement that normalizes date rape. The ad is simple: a man and women dressed in nice, elegant clothing. Doesn’t seem so bad. But, right in the middle reads the words, “spike your best friend’s egg nog when they’re not looking.” Aside from being grammatically incorrect (the nerd inside of me, sorry), this ad completely glorifies date rape culture. I sure hope that since 2015, Bloomingdale’s learned a hard lesson.

While all three of these brands did make public apologizes, it leaves a question residing within me: just how did a team of qualified professionals make such poor judgements? A good advertisement might occupy a consumer’s mind for a couple seconds, but a bad ad… that’s sure to leave a lasting impact. As a culturally sensitive society, marketers always need to be thinking from the consumer’s point of view. Carrie Bradshaw might not have been able to predict the no smoking laws, but marketers should definitely be able to anticipate how one, quick racial remark can generate quite an uproar.