Sales & Marketing

10 of the most controversial adverts ever

12 min read

03 September 2015

We've pulled together ten eyebrow-raising ads that stirred up significant controversy for one reason or another – from the bizarre and downright hilarious, to those that changed public perception.

Ashley Madison has seen its fair share of controversy since launching in 2001, not least the recent mass data leak. The dating website marketed to those who are married or in a relationship ran into trouble after hackers leaked the personal information of millions of emails registered to the website, with some UK divorce lawyers already confirming they had been busier than usual.

Before the data disaster however, one of its most controversial moments to date had been the site’s TV ads – one in particular was removed from broadcast in Australia. The aforementioned ad got us thinking about what other notable adverts have become memorable due to controversy. So, here’s a list of ten of the most eyebrow-raising – including some where official complaints were upheld and those where they weren’t.

(1) Ashley Madison – “Other than my wife”

A site that bills itself with the tagline “Life is short, have an affair” is always going to be controversial in what it does, but Ashley Madison decided to really push the boat out with an additional catchy jingle for a TV spot. Australia’s advertising watchdog deemed the advert “demeaning and vilifying of women”, and it caused outrage among viewers before it was pulled.

The advert shows a man flicking through different women on the Ashley Madison site, while singing, “I’m looking for someone other than my wife”. Among the long list of complaints were numerous saying it was “promoting promiscuity in married men”, as well as being “sexist that only men are encouraged to commit adultery in their marriage”. The Ad Standards Board said the swiping element “strongly depicts women as a commodity to be bought and is demeaning and vilifying of women”.

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(2) Paddy Power – Oscar Pistorius “money back if he walks”

As a well-known fan of the shock tactic, Paddy Power is responsible for the most complained about advert to date in the UK, proving print ads can still cause maximum impact. The ad in question racked up 5,525 complaints in 2014. 

It seized on the heavy media coverage swarming the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, and mocked up a golden statuette of the athlete saying it’s “Oscar time” and offering money back if he wasn’t charged. There was outrage over various issues – many said it trivialised domestic violence towards women, while others pointed out the advert made fun of double amputee Pistorius’ disability.

The Advertising Standards Authority immediately suspended the ad, saying it brought “advertising into disrepute”.

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(3) National Insurance – Superbowl ad

NBC, which broadcasted this year’s Superbowl, said it had sold 95 per cent of its ad slots at a princely cost of $4.5m. Prices for a slot at the huge sporting event have gone up 75 per cent over a decade, so understandably, brands want to make sure theirs count when they’ve coughed up that amount. 

Which Nationwide definitely did – though just in a rather controversial way. Its ad featured a young boy discussing the experiences he’ll never get to have, because as it turns out –he’s dead. The spot sparked a huge amount of backlash, with viewers taking to social media to complain. The company quickly offered up a late-night statement saying the ad was intended to “start a conversation, not sell insurance”, though many said as well as being disturbing, the ad was also confusing.

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(4) Booking.com

The second-most complained about advert in the UK for 2014 was the online booking website’s TV and cinema advert, where the word “booking” was repeatedly used as an apparent substitute for an expletive. 

The majority of those complaining said the substitution was offensive, but the Advertising Standards Authority said the word was used comically, while Booking.com said there was “no ambiguity” about the use of the word, and it was referenced repeatedly to reinforce brand recognition.

Choice quotes from the advert included “look at the view, look at the booking view” and “It doesn’t get any booking better than this”.

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(5) The Sun – Win a date with a Page 3 model

Also notching up the complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority was The Sun’s advertisement sent to email subscribers of its fantasy football competition. It offered a date with a Page Three model where the winner could potentially pick which woman they’d like to go out with. 

It was banned by the watchdog which ruled the ad demeaning to women, while objectifying those offered as prizes. It wasn’t allowed to appear again in the original form. 

The Sun meanwhile, said it was “disappointed” by the ruling and that the email was “an obviously light-hearted marketing exercise”. Many complaints were submitted as part of a campaign led by SumOfUs.org, saying the Sun had reached “a new low”.

Others also said the date offer was an incentive to gamble and therefore irresponsible.

Read on to see which other adverts made our top ten.

(6) KFC – Bad manners

Before Paddy Power’s Pistorius advert was created, KFC had the dubious honour of the most complained about advert with this one from 2005 that garnered 1,671 complaints.

What managed to stir up viewers into a frothy rage? Was it the unimpressive sexism or graphic violence? No, people were actually up in arms about the fact people were shown singing with their mouths full, as numerous viewers wrote into the ASA worried it would encourage bad manners.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the complaints were not upheld and the KFC-loving singers were allowed to carry on appearing on TV.

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(7) Benetton

The clothing brand became renowned for its edgy adverts, which often pushed the line of controversy. More than 800 people complained about its giant image of a newborn baby covered in blood in 1991, which Benetton said was intended to be an “anthem to life”, but ended up being “one of the most censured visuals in the history of Benetton ads”.

Its other notorious series of ads was the Unhate collection of world leaders kissing – deliberately choosing those at odds with each other on certain views to amp up the message of arguing for reconciliation. 

Benetton has caused controversy with numerous other ads too in what it has seen as a crusade of social causes – including using a photograph of the bloodied clothes of a dead Croatian solider. That one resulted in retailers claiming they had lost money because of the ad campaign. Benetton then sued retailers for refusing to pay their bills, while retailers counter-sued for the money allegedly lost because of the shock advertising.

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(8) Wrigley – Avoid dog breath

Wrigley secured the most-complained about TV commercial of all time in 2003, with this charming number advertising Xcite chewing gum.

It depicted a man regurgitating a dog alongside the tagline “avoid dog breath”. Numerous viewers complained that it made them feel sick, and it was consequently moved to a post-watershed time before Wrigley pulled it early.

The chewing gum manufacturer maintained the intention had been to convey its brand in an “impactful and engaging manner”. It certainly did the former, though the numerous viewers of sensitive disposition may have something to say on the latter point.

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(9) Lynx – Dumb animals

Launched in the mid 1980s, with photographer David Bailey shooting the campaign for free, this Lynx campaign featured posters as well as a cinema advert.

The slogan: “It takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat. But only one to wear it,” was suitably hard-hitting – and sought to make fur-wearers into social outcasts rather than only focusing on the pain inflicted on animals.

It was a good example of controversy working effectively and was credited with changing public conception about fur. Mark Glover, co-founder of Lynx said it was one of the first pieces of consumer-driven campaigning, and the ad was frequently referred to in the press whenever an article discussed the issue of wearing fur.

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(10) Ogilvy & King Khalid Foundation – Saudi Arabia’s first domestic violence ad

Saudi Arabia ran its first anti-abuse campaign in 2013, and didn’t hold back in the visuals depicted.

The advert featured in numerous newspapers, with a full-page picture of a woman with a black eye clearly visible. The accompanying slogan said “Some things can’t be covered”.

The creators said in a culture that tends to turn a blind eye to the issue of violence towards women, it was a shocking and powerful image. Ogilvy had initially been unsure about what to expect when approaching the King Khalid Foundation – a charity that focuses on issues of advocacy – and if the advert would be too sensitive.

The foundation’s director pushed for it, saying she didn’t think it was controversial at all – “who will say, ‘yes it’s okay for women to be beaten up?’”

Its impact was immediate, sparking a nationwide conversation and resulting in legislation being passed outlawing any form of abuse in the home or workplace.