The Worst Super Bowl Ads — Avoid These Blunders

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There’s a lot to be learned from the Super Bowl.

While athletes gather new motivation and coaches pick up a few more techniques, the Super Bowl is also an excellent place for marketers to gain tips.

How?

The ads, of course.

Between 80 and 100 ads run annually during the Super Bowl. Companies pay millions to have their commercials aired for 30 to 60 seconds.

While many companies see success from their ads, others end the game, facing some alarming results.

So, what makes a bad ad?

I’ll highlight the basics of bad advertising and walk you through ten of the worst Super Bowl ads ever. These lessons apply to all forms of marketing, too, so whether you’re a blogger or a scriptwriter, you’ll gain some takeaways.

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What makes an ad flop?

Super Bowl ads are some of the year’s most widely discussed marketing materials. Some ads make a significant splash, while others are memorable for not-so-good reasons.

As a marketer and as a consumer, there are a few things that make an ad flop, including:

  • Offensiveness. While some argue that “all publicity is good publicity,” offensive ads can negatively impact a company’s bottom line. A reputation can affect between 3-7.5% of revenues annually.
  • Confusing messaging. Confusing ads don’t always face the public backlash that offensive ads do, but they aren’t very effective. If viewers don’t know what the ad is or who it’s advertising, it’s tough to take action.
  • Irritating. Annoying ads sometimes have jingles that get stuck in our heads, but it’s not always good. In fact, irritating ads can diminish a brand’s authority.

In my experience, ensuring clear and appropriate messaging should be a priority in all marketing areas, regardless of the ad format. When companies disregard clarity and appropriateness, they become vulnerable to a flop.

The Worst Super Bowl Ads of All Time

The Super Bowl has been a powerful platform for advertisers since its launch in 1968. Even in the very first year of the event, companies paid $150,000 for one minute of ad coverage.

With 58 years of commercials, there are some memorable Super Bowl ad flops. Let’s look at some of the worst Super Bowl ads ever and what made them a flop.

Pepsi x Kendall Jenner

This Pepsi ad, launched in 2017, featured supermodel Kendall Jenner giving a Pepsi to a police officer at a protest. After taking a sip of Pepsi, the officer smiled, and the protesters laughed and cheered in glee.

What Makes It a Blunder

This Super Bowl ad was criticized harshly for being “tone-deaf.” While the ad may have intended to bring awareness to social justice issues, viewers felt that the clip diminished activists’ struggles.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that the influencer they used had little to do with social justice and was a bit controversial herself. My experience as a marketer has taught me that you need to care about the message and the messenger.

Pepsi’s neglect of both created a guarantee that this ad would flop — and many took to Twitter to share their opinions.

Lifeminders

In 2000, Lifeminders.com paid for what is now known as the cheapest Super Bowl ad of all time. It starts with text on a yellow screen, reading, “This is the worst Super Bowl ad of all time.”

The ad goes on to describe the company, which offers personalized emails.

What Makes It a Blunder

While I think this ad was intended to be funny, it was somewhat off-putting. The ad confused audiences with unclear messaging because it didn’t provide much information about the company.

What it did say about the company also seemed in direct opposition to the ad’s style, which was exceedingly bland.

Despite the ad’s poor reception, Lifeminder said they saw 700,000 new customers in the weeks following their Super Bowl ad — so it wasn’t a total flop.

Sad Robot

The infamous GM Sad Robot ad aired in 2007. The ad begins with a robot being fired for making a mistake. Then, the robot tries to get a new job but fails. After failing a few new jobs, the robot leaps off a bridge, insinuating suicide.

Then viewers discover this is only a dream, and a message about GM’s 100,000-mile warranty appears.

What Makes It a Blunder

GM faced extreme backlash for this ad. At its surface, the ad is unsettling and disturbing, offending audiences. Super Bowl audiences vary in age; overwhelmingly, ads are lighthearted or positive.

This tone clash was jarring for viewers. As a marketer, I know the value of ensuring your tone aligns with your context.

GM’s ad was extremely poorly timed, as it was released amidst significant layoffs. The ad’s messaging spoke directly to this in an insensitive and offensive way.

5 to 9

In this 2021 Super Bowl ad for the website builder Squarespace, you can hear Dolly Parton singing a revamped version of her classic, “9 to 5.”

Instead of “9 to 5,” she’s singing “5 to 9,” highlighting side hustles that bring meaning to employees’ lives.

What Makes It a Blunder

Squarespace and Dolly Parton both received criticism for this Superbowl commercial. Many thought the ad was an offensive suggestion that individuals needed to be overworked to have value.

Additionally, the song isn’t catchy like the original, landing the ad in the irritating category.

Make Safe Happen

Nationwide’s 2015 Make Safe Happen ad featured a young child describing things they’d never do. They’d never get cooties or get married, for example.

At the end of the ad, the young child states that they wouldn’t get to do any of those things because they died in an accident. Then, it said that Nationwide cares about what matters.

What Makes It a Blunder

This ad is one of the most widely criticized ad campaigns ever. It’s a highly morbid ad, considered overly dark and unnerving. And the ad intended to sell insurance, which people found exploitative and offensive.

Overall, this ad flopped on more than a few marks.

Perfect Match

GoDaddy’s Perfect Match ad aired in 2013. It features a supermodel and a nerd, and the spokeswoman states that GoDaddy is both sexy and smart.

Then, as a representation of the fusion of those two attributes, the clip features 10 seconds of kissing — a third of the entire ad.

What Makes It a Blunder

This GoDaddy ad was criticized for making viewers extremely uncomfortable. While the intent was certainly playful, viewers felt the kiss lingered for far too long and became inappropriate for television.

Like many of the ads on this list, GoDaddy neglected to consider the context of its ad.

Ace Metrix, an ad ranking site, stated that this ad had the 2nd lowest rating for Super Bowl ads that year.

Sony Experia

Sony launched an ad for a new Android phone that contained gaming controls in 2011. The ad featured a man wandering through dark streets and ending up in a back room with surgery performed on an Android.

The Android received human thumbs and went out onto the streets, ready to game.

What Makes It a Blunder

The 2011 Sony ad made viewers extremely uncomfortable. The sight of human thumbs on the robot was visually jarring and, for some viewers, terrifying. Additionally, the messaging in the ad was fairly confusing.

While the end of the commercial clarified what was being advertised, there was little information about the product throughout the 60-second ad.

As a marketer, it’s vital to intentionally use all the space you’re given. Whether you’re writing an educational blog or a commercial script, you have to consider your goal: selling a product. Sony neglected to prioritize that goal in this ad.

MLK Dodge Ram

In 2018, Dodge Ram’s Super Bowl ad reinforced the brand’s motto, “Built to Serve.” The commercial featured powerful images of folks engaging in acts of community and service.

The ad was accompanied by an MLK sermon from precisely 50 years prior on servanthood.

What Makes It a Blunder

While some perceived the ad as powerful and inspirational, others found it a diminishing way to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Critics were outraged by the use of an MLK speech to sell trucks.

Overall, the commercial was thought by many to be an exploitative use of Martin Luther King’s words.

Temu’s 2024 Ad

If you watched the Superbowl this year, you certainly saw Temu’s advertisements, which aired not once but four times. This ad features animated visuals of people’s lives being improved by Temu, with low prices for each item Temu provides.

It’s accompanied by brand audio and concludes with Temu’s motto: Shop like a billionaire.

What Makes It a Blunder

The Temu ad didn’t offend (though there are many critics of the brand itself). Instead, the frequency of the ad annoyed viewers and resulted in a significantly negative perception.

Viewers took to social media to lament their irritation with the Temu ad that really did play four times.

The brand likely spent tens of millions on this campaign, as four 30-second ads is no cheap deal — and the frequency turned out to be an issue.

Groupon’s Tibet Ad

Finally, we’ll take a look at Groupon’s 2011 Super Bowl ad. The first half of the ad featured a narrative about the people of Tibet and how the culture is “in jeopardy.”

Then, the ad cuts to Timothy Hutton sitting in a restaurant being served Tibetan food by a Tibetan man. Finally, Timothy explains that he got this delicious meal for a deal, thanks to Groupon.

What Makes It a Blunder

Groupon’s ad faced an exceeding backlash for offensiveness. The ad was criticized for racism and diminishment of the struggles facing refugees of Tibet.

It was a poorly timed, poorly executed ad — and a major flop. The ad was pulled promptly from television after viewer response.

What We Can Learn From Ads That Flop

As we wrap up our look at some of the Super Bowl‘s biggest ad mishaps, let’s shift our focus to what we can learn and how we can innovate.

The key takeaway? Stay authentic, positive, and aligned with your audience‘s preferences. Those ads that didn’t hit the mark are perfect examples of what not to do, offering valuable insights into crafting effective marketing.

We have a golden chance to transform these missteps into major wins. Aim to create messages that resonate well — be engaging, considerate, and reflective of your audience’s interests, backed by solid data for relevance.

Remember to prioritize clarity and your brand’s integrity regardless of your company or ad format. Even with bold content, ensuring it’s received well should be a top concern.

Keep it casual yet professional, and let’s make marketing that truly stands out.

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