Top 12 Most Recent Controversial Ads: Unethical Ads Examples

October 10th, 2020

Have you ever seen a controversial, unethical ad that has left you scratching your head? Well, you’re not the only one.

Advertising can often be very hit or miss depending on the target audience and the marketing team in charge. Sometimes marketing departments can hit the nail on the head and deliver an incredible marketing campaign to impress their client and boost sales.

Other times, marketing departments can get it completely wrong and produce terrible, offensive ads that cause a lot of controversies, often resulting in a boycott and loss of sales.

Over the decades, there have been multiple examples of companies delivering terrible campaigns that have been talked about for all the wrong reasons. These whoopsies can affect any company no matter how big or small and have lasting impressions despite damage control.

To give you an idea of terrible ad campaigns that have caused controversy galore (often with serious knock-on effects for the offending company), we’re taking a look at some of the most controversial commercials and unethical ads. 

We’ve included infamous examples from the past decade, as well as some more recent blunders made by marketing departments that should really know better. 

Most Recent Controversial Ads

Year after year, we see brands continuing to make the same mistakes. You’d think, with ample past examples to learn from (we’ll get to those later), they should know better by now. 

Maybe you’ve seen some of these articles in the news recently, or perhaps this is your first time seeing them.

Whatever the case, these ads caused a lot of controversy in recent years for different reasons. Here’s why:

Bumble – Celibacy Is Not the Answer

The ad: In April 2024, dating app Bumble released an ad campaign that sparked outrage online. As shown in the image, the billboard ad campaign included messages such as “A vow of celibacy is not the answer” and “Thou shalt not give up on dating and become a nun”.

Bumble released a statement saying the campaign was supposed to bring humor to “a community frustrated by modern dating”. 

Why it’s an unethical ad: It’s not hard to see why this ad campaign is highly controversial. Critics and social media users alike panned the ad as tasteless and counterproductive to the company’s stated aim of empowering women. 

Unsurprisingly, the backlash came thick and fast – and Bumble was quick to release a statement stating “we made a mistake”. The company has since removed the campaign from billboards across the US, and has offered the advertising space to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. 

In a world where consumer attention is short-lived and hard to get, it’s not surprising that marketing departments are using increasingly bold, often controversial copy in order to command attention and get people talking. Yet using controversial messaging that directly undermines your very own mission statement probably isn’t the smartest move. 

Zara – The Jacket

The ad: In 2023, high street clothing brand Zara released, and subsequently removed, a highly controversial ad campaign showcasing model Kristen McMenamy in a setting that was supposed to resemble a sculptor’s studio. 

The campaign, titled “The Jacket”, showcased McMenamy posing amongst rubble and limbless statues, with the model holding mannequins wrapped in white plastic and cloth.

Why it’s an unethical ad: Around the time this ad was released, the war between Israel and Gaza had just begun – and images of the ongoing tragic events were all over the news, as well as social media. 

Understandably, images of mannequins wrapped in cloth amongst rubble and destruction were seen as highly insensitive, particularly in the context of the ongoing conflict. 

The backlash Zara received focused on how the imagery used mirrored the tragic nature of the ongoing war, which many called distasteful and highly inappropriate.

The campaign led to many consumers boycotting the brand, with #BoycottZara trending on X (formerly Twitter) and even protests outside of Zara stores shortly after the campaign launched.

In response to the backlash, Zara withdrew the campaign and issued a statement saying they regretted a “misunderstanding” about the images. 

Bharat Matrimony – Holi Ad

The Ad: On March 8th, Bharat Matrimony, an online matrimonial platform, revealed an ad that coincided with International Women’s Day and the Hindu festival of Holi. 

The ad shows a woman with traditional Holi colors painted on her face. She then cleans her face, revealing cuts and bruises. The juxtaposition of the bright, vibrant Holi gulal against the cuts and bruises was supposed to highlight domestic abuse. 

Why it’s an unethical ad: Bharat Matrimony had the noble intentions of raising awareness of domestic abuse during IWD and the Holi festival. Instead, many criticized the company for associating domestic abuse with the Holi festival. 

The portrayal of abuse in the context of the Holi festival led to widespread disapproval, and many consumers boycotted Bharat Matrimony for the ad’s perceived misuse of an important cultural festival. 

Faced with widespread backlash, Bharat Matrimony opted for a passive stance – perhaps hoping the negativity surrounding the campaign would simply go away. Instead, the lack of any sort of public statement or campaign withdrawal contributed to sustained criticism surrounding the company. 

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that tying your message to important cultural affairs – no matter how well-intentioned – is risky. And, if you do get it wrong, don’t bury your head in the sand! 

Diablo 4 – Welcome to Hell

The ad: In 2023, video game developer Blizzard released their highly anticipated Diablo sequel, Diablo 4. Around the same time, Canada was being ravaged by unprecedented wildfires – devastation the likes of which Canada had never even come close to seeing before. A record 18.5 hectares went up in flames – an area about twice the size of Portugal. 

During the record-breaking wildfires, smoke and brimstone filled the sky which turned orange for miles around – including New York, where the game was heavily advertised via a billboard campaign. 

As the image shows, the smoke-filled sky made Diablo 4’s hell-based setting feel all the more real. The coincidence made some social media users jokingly question whether someone from Blizzard was walking around Canada carelessly lighting matches… 

Why it’s an unethical ad: Whilst perhaps not as unethical as some of the other ads on this list, the after-effects from the Canadian wildfires were devastating. Huge swaths of Canada’s boreal forests were lost – a sanctuary for bears, moose, endangered songbirds, hundreds of endangered species. 

What’s more, over 1.7bn tons of planet-heating gasses were released as this crucial carbon bank burned down. It wasn’t just animals and trees, though – two firefighter deaths and numerous evacuations, including the 20,000 citizens of Yellowknife, made these wildfires some of the most devastating in human history. 

Within the larger context of the devastation, Blizzard’s “welcome to hell” tagline was viewed as insensitive by many, and Blizzard received pressure to remove the ad from the affected areas. 

LUSH – #spycops

lush controversial ad

The ad: LUSH is a UK based handmade cosmetics manufacturer that has stores all across the UK and USA. In 2018 LUSH released its spy cops campaign across all their UK stores which raised many eyebrows. In addition to running the advert across all of their UK shops, they also produced several online articles explaining the issue.

The campaign focused on “spy cops” or undercover police who infiltrate political groups and form relationships in order to gather and collect data on subjects.

There have been many stories of police offers having sexual relations with these campaigners all while hiding the truth from their real families. The ad was basically a whistleblowing campaign to raise awareness of the police’s tactics and the devastation it brings to families and children.

Why it’s an unethical ad: The main issue with this campaign is that it came across as very anti-police to most of the general public. In fact, there were reports of people complaining and becoming very aggressive in the stores, resulting in LUSH having to call the police. Due to the negative reception of the ads, LUSH ended up pulling them and releasing an official statement on their website.

Nike’s Ad – Colin Kaepernick

The ad: Nike is undoubtedly one of the biggest companies when it comes to sportswear and sports brands. Known for its sports footwear, clothes and accessories, Nike regularly invests in multi-million-dollar ad campaigns featuring the likes of famous sports athletes.

In 2018 Nike launched an advert featuring the American quarterback Colin Kaepernick who at the time was known for protesting over the American national anthem during football games.

The ad was plastered on billboards all over America with the tagline “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”. The line being a nod to Kaepernick’s previous actions of not standing for the national anthem in protest over the treatment of ethnic minorities.

Why it’s an unethical ad: After Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, many viewers became angry at him and viewed him as anti-American. The fact that Nike was using him in their ads made many people believe Nike was also anti-American. This sparked a lot of controversies online with many social media users posting pictures of themselves destroying Nike products, along with the hashtag #JustBurnIt.

However, despite the online backlash over the campaign and casting of Kaepernick, Nike reportedly made over $6 billion in sales and saw online sales grow by 31%.

Controversial Ads From the Past Decade

There’s no shortage of controversial ads from the past few years, let alone the past decade. However, there have been some pretty memorable ad campaign controversies over the past decade or two that are worth learning from.

Let’s take a look:

Protein World – Beach Body Ready

woman on protein world ad

The ad: Starting off our list is this beach body ad campaign by health supplement supplier Protein World. Released in 2015 across London and New York billboards, the offensive ad pictured a bikini-clad girl with the slogan “Are you beach body ready?”

The idea was to promote their supplements to users who wanted the perfect beach body for summer. However, the ad quickly received plenty of backlash via social media and even resulted in many passersby vandalizing and writing over the ad.

Why it’s an unethical ad: The problem with this ad campaign was the fact that is promoted “body shaming” and an unhealthy body image. Many feminist groups noted that the wording of the ad insinuates that the body in the picture is the only “acceptable” beach body. This means that any other body type not like the one in the picture is “unready”.

Despite the backlash from the public the ad received a lot of publicity and press coverage. Protein World went on to make a reported £1 million profit from the £250,000 they spent on the advertising campaign. Although it caused a lot of controversy around the world, it somehow still managed to boost the company’s sales.

Hopefully, in their future advertising they’ll be able to get the same success without having their commercials recognised as ‘sexist ads’.

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Bud Light – #upforwhatever

The ad: The ad in question, (that you can watch above) looks pretty harmless and normal as far as commercials go. A random guy gets asked to do something, and he goes along with it since he’s “up for whatever.”

In a series of events (and short ads) he ends up playing table tennis with Arnold Schwarzenegger at a OneRepublic concert (like you do). No violence, no swearing, no nudity. What could possibly be controversial about this ad?

Why it’s an unethical ad: If you’ve watched the commercial above, then it might not seem controversial, but it wasn’t the ad aired on TV itself that was the problem. Instead, it was the overall premise of the ad campaign, especially with the hashtag #upforwhatever.

The printed messages on the beers themselves actually said “the perfect beer for removing no from your vocabulary for the night.”

Considering the role alcohol frequently plays in rape cases, it definitely wasn’t the best idea to promote that kind of message on the side of their beers.

The ad received a lot of backlash from customers who said the campaign “encouraged and promoted rape” by printing those messages on their bottles. In the end, Bud Light apologized and pulled the entire campaign. Hopefully next time they’ll think twice about what their campaigns are telling customers to do.

Benetton Group – Unhate Campaign

unhate campaign ad

The ad: Consider the previous controversial ads we’ve had on this list, this one probably stands out as the most offensive. The campaign features a range of world leaders kissing, including the likes of Obama, Merkel, and Sarkozy. According to the company behind the ad, the theme focuses on the kiss as it’s a universal symbol of love.

The controversial ad ran across many countries on large billboards during its 2011 launch which as you can imagine caused a lot of raised eyebrows. This wasn’t the first time the group had launched controversial ads before, in fact, their previous ads showed a priest and nun kissing.

Why it’s an unethical ad: Controversy for this ad campaign arose in many different ways. The first was the use of world leaders without their consent. In fact, one of the ads features Pope Benedict XVI kissing a top Egyptian imam which was quickly removed after being condemned by the Vatican.
The ads were met with so much backlash that some people started to tear the ads down themselves. Despite the backlash, Benetton never withdrew or apologized for the campaign and even went on to win the prestigious Cannes ad festival award.

Pepsi – Live For Now

The ad: Pepsi is known for its high-budget ads which usually feature famous faces such as Lionel Messi, Beyonce, Pink, Michael Jackson, and Beckham to name a few. This Pepsi ad was no different and featured celebrity fashion icon, Kendall Jenner. Released in 2017, the ad (which you can watch above) shows Kendall joining a protest outside after removing her black wig and makeup.

She then proceeds to give a can of Pepsi to a police officer during a stand-off who then smiles and the crowd cheers. Kendall Jenner has saved the day, all thanks to Pepsi!

Why it’s an unethical ad: During the time the advert was released, there were many protests and riots taking place in America over the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. The ad took a lot of “inspiration” from these protests and fundamentally undermined the whole point of the protests. In addition to this, the ad also received a lot of criticism for how Pepsi was responsible for “saving the day.”

Within 24 hours of releasing the ad, Pepsi faced a lot of criticism from online users over the ad and had to release an official statement while also pulling the ad.

Nivea – White Is Purity

niva white is purity ad

The ad: Nivea is a German skincare brand that is known for manufacturing antiperspirants, face creams, and plenty of other cosmetics. To promote one of their new invisible antiperspirants, Nivea decided to use the tagline “white is purity” on their social media campaign. The ad featured a woman wearing a white top while looking out the window with the slogan in bold blue letters.

This ad was just one of a number of other ads from the same campaign to promote their new product.

Why it’s an unethical ad: As you can probably see from the advert above, the choice of words for this campaign was very poorly chosen. To make things worse, they specifically aimed the campaign at people in the Middle East which caused many people to call the advert racist.

In addition to this, many right-wing groups started to promote the advert with some going as far as saying Nivea was the official alt-right antiperspirant. Eventually, Nivea released a statement about the controversial ads and immediately withdrew them after realizing the wording and context caused offense to many viewers.

Dove – Lotion Ad

dove lotion ad

The ad: Similar to Nivea, Dove is a popular skincare brand that targets numerous countries around the world with their moisturizers, deodorants and hair care products. In 2017, Dove released a social media ad on their Facebook page of a black woman “transforming” into a white woman.

The advert showed a black woman removing her top to reveal a white woman underneath after using Dove’s body lotion. As you can probably tell, there are many things wrong with this advert.

Why it’s an unethical ad: The controversy caused by the advert is as clear as day. Not only is the advert racist, but it’s also insulting to viewers.

The campaign was instantly removed from Facebook while the owners of the brand Unilever, released a statement apologizing for the advert. The scary thing about this advert is that it must have been approved at some point during the marketing process, which makes it worrying that nobody thought it would cause offense.

This also wasn’t the first time Dove received backlash over their ads. In 2011 they came under fire for a similar image showing the transition of a black woman to a white woman after using their lotion.

Tweets from users showed that people don’t just forget about these types of ads overnight. A bad ad campaign can leave you with a negative reputation for years.

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Now you’ve seen the most controversial ads, be sure to check out the best guerrilla marketing campaign examples that will make you rethink your current marketing campaigns.

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