A tea kettle that eerily reminded some observers of Adolf Hitler got JC Penney in hot water this week, but the retailer is only the most recent addition to a long list of advertising blunders.
Snapshot from Hyundai ad
Take car ads, for example. There was an outcry in April after car maker Hyundai posted an online ad showing a man attempting to commit suicide in his garage with a pipe coming from the exhaust and into the car. And in March, the Indian unit of Ford Motor Company had to apologize for a series of ads showing former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with a group of bound women in the trunk.
“It’s a crowded market and youth culture is all about being provocative and a little bit edgy," Tim Nudd, who writes for Adweek, said. "These brands, they sit in their meetings and they say, ‘How far we want to take this?’ -- and oftentimes they decide to take a risk and it’s all about getting noticed."
Everyone watching the Super Bowl this year noticed Volkswagen's ad, showing a white office worker speaking like a Jamaican. Critics of the ad called it racist, but public opinion was on the car maker's side, and the backlash subsided.
"To their credit, they kind of rode that one out," Nudd said of Volkswagen.
ChapStick did not make any friends on social media when it posted on Facebook an image of a woman, backside in the air, looking for her ChapStick behind a couch. "Where do lost ChapSticks go?" the ad rhetorically asked -- and the public's negative reaction came swiftly. The brand dealt with it by deleting all the negative comments before finally apologizing days later.
"In most situations it doesn’t help to try to defend yourself, you just have to own up to it, apologize, be as communicative as you can with your fans and followers and just move on," Nudd said, adding that ChapStick's handling of the situation is the perfect example of what not to do in a crisis.
Nudd said advertisers don't have to avoid touchy subjects, but if they choose to tackle racial, political or other sensitive topics, the execution should be be flawless.
Groupon's mock "Save Tibet" PSA is a bad example of proper execution. In the video, Actor Timothy Hutton is being served a meal at a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago. "The Tibetan people are in trouble. Their culture is in jeopardy," Hutton says, then follows up with: "But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!"
Then there are the type of blunders that could have been easily avoided had the advertiser hired a copy editor -- like this giant billboard boasting South Bend's excellent "pubic schools."
JC Penney's tea kettle, however, belongs in a separate category, Nudd said.
Ford Motor Co.
“The JC Penney example is a bit unique in the sense that I’m not surprised they didn’t catch on to it and I don’t think they need to apologize for it," he said.
On Tuesday the company clarified that any resemblance is completely "unintentional," repeatedly tweeting the clarification at those curious about a Hitler connection.
"If we had designed it to look like something, we would have gone with a snowman or something fun," the store tweeted at numerous followers.
The retailer has struggled financially for some time due to stiff competition from e-commerce sites and big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart. The publication 24/7 Wall St. even predicted the brand would disappear next year. They can't seem to catch a break, Nudd said.
“It’s sort of the worst situation that they can find themselves in – making people upset through no fault of their own," he said.
But, he added, the public appears to be on JC Penney's side in this matter.
“Maybe in the long run it’s not the worst thing to have happened to them."