Marketing for a product is quite a tricky business especially when you are unaware of the successful promotional strategies. Most of the companies out there are eager to gain more visibility and attract customers. But little do they know that if their messages go wrong, it could hit them hard with a huge loss. Well, some of the top multinational corporations have had their times as well. Here are their promotional campaigns that went wrong. Many of these mistakes would seem obvious, but no one saw them coming their way and the ended up being very bad.


1. When the Summer Olympics in 1984 started in Los Angeles, McDonald’s had decided to run a promotional campaign. It included offering free meals each time any US athlete won a medal. However, it turned out to be one of the costliest promotions ever. The Soviet Union, the Olympic’s powerhouse, boycotted the entire event and let the US win.

Image credits: Brad Kometer/TwitterSean MC/Youtube

Before the Olympics started in Los Angeles in 1984, our all-time favorite fast-food chain, McDonald’s, decided to run a promotion “When the US wins, you win” within the nation. They offered free Big Macs, french fries and Cokes each time any US athlete reached the podium and won gold, silver, or bronze medals. Customers having game cards mentioning these events were also considered winners. The franchise in the San Francisco Bay Area was hit so hard, they even ran short of hamburgers. Later, the Soviet Union, the team’s powerhouse team, decided to boycott the games and let the US win. The promotional campaign did gain more popularity than expected. However, a franchise in South California reported in a local newspaper, “With all the gold medals that the U.S. is winning, we’re swamped … this is the most successful , but it’s also the most costly.” (12)

2. The AAirpass, a promotion by American Airlines that let people pay a one time $250,000 fee and have a lifetime of unlimited flights, ended up costing the airlines more than $21,000,000 when one of the first-class ticket holders traveled on more than 10,000 flights.

Image credits: Ezmarketing

American Airlines offered its flyers with an AAirpass that allowed them to fly first class for unlimited times in 1981. The one-time fee for the pass was $250,000. At an additional cost of $150,000, a companion could accompany them. The pass holder could then bring anyone along for a lifetime free ride in business class. The idea behind this promotional campaign was to gain more flyers by providing the wealthier flyers with the pass. But the public turned out to be way smarter than they had thought. Among the wealthiest flyers was one who traveled more than 10,000 times, which led the company to take a huge loss of $21,000,000. It was reported that 66 AAirpasses were purchased under this condition of free travel. Among them was the baseball player Willie Mays, the businessman Michael Dell, and America’s Cup winner Dennis Conner. AAirpass was discontinued after 1994, but 28 people had already benefited from the lifetime deal. (source)


3. A promotional campaign run by Pepsi in the Philippines led to outrage when Pepsi went on to mistakenly print 800,000 winning caps. According to the campaign, the person who found a bottle with the winning number would win $40,000.

Image credits: PepsiMarketingLessons

Pepsico Inc. started a promotion “Number Fever” in 1993, promising 1 million pesos, which is about $40,000, in cash to the one who found a 3-digit number inside the bottle cap. The motto of the promotion was to make millionaires from some of the poor Filipinos. When the company announced the winning digit to be the number “349,” thousands of people headed to the Pepsi plants all across the country to receive their cash prize.

However, the company refused to pay them and said they it was not the correct winning security number. The winners then argued that the promotional description didn’t mention that a winning security code was needed; only the number displayed would determine the validity of the cap. This led to massive outrage, and the company then decided to pay each of the winners $18. Since there were over 800,000 caps with the code 349, the company paid out $10 million. (12)

4. In 1994 as part of a promotion campaign, Fiat sent out 50,000 anonymous love letters to young women in Spain with the intention of revealing its identity after 4 to 5 days. The campaign backfired and instead of curiosity, it spread panic and fear of stalker among women.

Image credits: Fiat, Pixabay

Fiat, the Italian car-making company, was all set to launch a new promotional campaign in 1994 in Spain. The promotion included sending about 50,000 love letters by unknowns to modern young women. It said that the identity of the sender would be revealed within four to five days. Each woman received a typed letter on pink paper that included several compliments and invitation for adventures. Some of the common lines were “We met again on the street yesterday and I noticed how you glanced interestedly in my direction.” A spokesman at the company said, “We thought it was a fun campaign aimed at the independent, modern, working woman.” Instead, it created a feeling of insecurity among women that they were being stalked by psychos. The campaign even caused arguments and jealousy among married couples. Fiat had to discontinue the campaign and apologized once the protests started. (source)


5.  The CEO of Lifelock decided to run a promotional campaign in which he published his Social Security Number in product advertisements for promoting his company. However, his identity was stolen 13 times, and the company had to pay $100 million for misleading advertising.

Image credits: LifeLock/Wayback Machine via Business Insider

LifeLock Inc., a company based in Arizona, focused on providing anti-theft services. Consumers were provided with theft-protection systems that helped in detecting any fraudulent applications for services related to credits and non-credits. However, the CEO of the company provided his Social Security Number on the products while he conducted promotional campaigns through the ads. His number was stolen by fraud, and it caused him to lose his identity about 13 times. In 2015, he had to pay $100 million to the Federal Trade Commission to settle the charges, since he deceptively promoted his products and failed to protect the information of the customers. The false claims about protecting the consumer’s identity 100% were misleading, and the company had to bear this huge loss. (12)


6. In the year 1992, the Hoover Company decided to offer free flight tickets to customers that purchased products of £100 and above. However, the offer cost the company about £50,000,000 since there was a huge response from customers who were much more interested in getting the free flight offer than purchasing the Hoover products.

Image credits: Campaignlive

Hoover, the appliance company mostly known for the vacuum cleaners they provide, planned to promote their sales in 1992 by conducting an interesting campaign. Their dream to promote cleaner sales ended even before they could dream of big turnovers. The reason is quite simple. On a minimum purchase of £100, they offered the customers two, free, return-flight tickets to either Europe or America worth £600. Consumers, being smart, went for the minimally priced vacuum cleaners that qualified for the deal to receive the free offer. Consequently, the company had to bear a huge loss of £50,000,000 after they received a huge response from customers since they were more interested in the free flight deal than the product. (source)


7. Coke once ran a hidden “MagiCans” promotional campaign that had spring-loaded cash and coupons instead of cola. The campaign failed when technical glitches inside the cans made the consumers drink chlorinated water accidentally.

Coke had one of its costliest promotional campaigns, “MagiCan,” that began on May 7, 1990, and ended on May 31. These specialized, mechanical cans were used by the Coca Cola Company where they spent $100 million to conduct this campaign. It mentioned that the Coke cans would include cash prizes and coupons worth as much as $500, and not the drink. The cans were loaded with a spring mechanism. When the customers would open the can to have the drink, the prizes would pop up. However, things didn’t turn out as planned.

The initial plan was to distribute around 750,000 MagiCans in 200 million cans in a single circulation. To make these cans have the same feel and weight, and to make it so people could not easily find the prizes, the sealed area of the cans were filled with chlorinated water and ammonium sulfate to prevent consumers from drinking the water. But some cans either had a malfunctioning pop-up mechanism, faulty seals, or jammed. This led the foul-smelling chlorinated water to release itself in the can. It was also reported that a young, 11-year-old boy in Massachusetts mistakenly drank this water instead of coke. The company immediately warned consumers of this due to the fear of product liability lawsuits and bad publicity. They said that only a few number of cans contained the foul-smelling liquid that was harmless which the people weren’t supposed to drink. (source)

8. EA decided to send out brass knuckles to various game journalists as a part of their promotion for promoting the game of Godfather II before they realized that they weren’t legal in most of the states they sent them to which included California where EA is based.

Image credits: EAKotaku

EA Redwood Shores developed the game Godfather II and published worldwide across all platforms in April 2009. Earlier in March, EA had launched a Facebook app, The Godfather II: Crime Rings, to promote the game. After a month in early April, the company decided to send out brass knuckles to several journalists. The promotional campaign of the game was conducted in several states of the nation. Little did they know that they weren’t legal in almost all the states they sent the knuckles to. In fact, it was illegal even in California where EA Redwood Shores is based. When the company realized the mistake, they asked the journalists to return the knuckles and apologized. The game, however, received mixed ratings and reviews from different platforms worldwide. (source)

9. KFC once ran a campaign on The Oprah Winfrey Show offering free coupons on meals during which millions of people went ahead and downloaded about 10.5 million coupons. KFC had to give away around $42 million worth of free food and still failed to deliver what it had offered.

Image credits: Charlene Mcbride/Flickr

Among the top influential people in the US, Oprah Winfrey started a show on tv called The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was on this show that KFC had decided to feature a costly promotional campaign. The offer included distribution of free, two pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken along with two sides and one biscuit. Millions of people downloaded about 10.5 million coupons as soon as the campaign was featured. The rush at the KFC counters was unimaginable! There were long queues of people waiting to get their share of the free treat. Due to the overwhelming response, some franchises even ran out of chicken. It was unbelievable that KFC gave away free meals worth approximately $42 million! Moreover, it failed to deliver what they had offered the customers. (source)


10. Red Lobster, a restaurant chain, lost over $3 million once during their “Endless Crab” promotion campaign. This was because an executive couldn’t estimate how much food people could consume.

Image credits: Red Lobster

In 2003, Red Lobster, a seafood chain restaurant, conducted a promotion called “Endless Crab.” Chain President Edna Morris declared that hungry consumers could eat as many crab dishes as they wanted. She wanted to hike profits by offering a $22.99 dinner promotion to each at the restaurant. The company had to bear a loss of over $3 million, and it was a disastrous promotional campaign. Morris miscalculated the number of times people would refill their plates with the pricey crab. She failed to anticipate that crabs are comparatively lighter, and it requires a number of bites to fill one’s tummy. Also, the campaign was launched when there was a price surge among the wholesale price of the crabs. This ultimately led the company to stop the campaign after a few months. (source)

Mistakes tend to happen even when a company has a team of flawless marketers. But then, there are times when things are taken a bit too far and make us wonder what they were thinking before conducting such campaigns. Also, the effects of the mishap among people can have huge consequences that the company would have to bear. We hope these failed promotional campaign tales save you from any such instances in the future!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Boobs - Less Politics ​​

And Now... A Few Links From Our Sponsors