4 Offensive Ads You Won’t Believe Are Real

Incredibly offensive and tasteless ads used to be as ubiquitous as apple pie and gluttony, but what about in the increasingly conscious digital age? Well… they’re still around.

From cocaine use to bound and gagged girls in cars, here are four of the most controversial brand campaigns of all time:

1. Sisley’s “Fashion Junkie”

This cleverly photographed ad created such a stir back in 2007 that Sisley allegedly denied their involvement altogether.

“One of these images shows some girls ‘sniffing a vest.’ The allusion to drugs and alcohol is more than clear,” Sisley wrote on their official website back in ’07. “We would like to clearly state that the Sisley brand (and the Benetton company) has nothing to do with these images and therefore we refuse to be linked with them.”

Was Sisley the victim of a bored Photoshopper, or did they backtrack to avoid taking the heat from consumers who felt the ad was glamorizing drug use? And if the ad did belong to Sisley, was it even worth the risk?

“Fashion advertisers who cater to teen and young adult fashionistas often push the envelope on taste so that they get noticed by their very distracted audience,” says Melanie Wells, a former business journalist and long-time advertising and marketing commentator. “In fact, racy fashion ads have been appearing for so long that young people expect these advertisers to be over the top and ‘out there.’ What’s ‘hidden’ or unclear is more irritating to these savvy young consumers who prize transparency than racy images.”

2. Sony’s Dutch “PSP White Is Coming”

It’s hard to argue in favor of this ad (and its many versions) with all of its aggressively racist undertones. A white woman clutching a black woman by the chin—and alternatively the hair, as seen above—and trying to dominate her, featuring the headline “White Is Coming”—what was Dutch Sony thinking?

“It’s important for regional units of global brands—and their ad agencies—to make sure their ads and messages are in keeping with a larger story that is being told about the company, particularly today when a print ad that appears once in a small, faraway country can quickly go viral,” says Wells.

There was, in fact, a counter ad, in which the black woman appeared to be dominating the white woman, but that didn’t stop the main billboard and circulating image from generating a major media frenzy. While the text makes it fairly obvious that the “black” and “white” represent two different color versions of the same handheld PSP gaming device, it’s very easy to miss. The ads were deemed so offensive by bloggers, causal viewers, California lawmaker Leland Yee, and president of the San Jose and Silicon Valley chapter of the NAACP, Rick Callendar, that Sony withdrew the campaign altogether and issued an apology.

3. Ford’s “Bound & Gagged”

Sexual violence against women in media is nothing new, nor is using it to shock and draw attention to ads and marketing campaigns. But it wasn’t just women that Ford was targeting with one of their cartoonish caricatures (a similar version poked fun at Paris Hilton and the Kardashians); this ad for a Ford Figo depicts a grinning, peace-sign-waving driver who looks suspiciously like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was being charged in a sex-for-hire scandal at the time the ad was released.

Ford apologized for the ad, as did their advertising firm, claiming that they never meant anyone to see this mock-up. Still, it’s hard to see why anyone would think even the mock-up was a good idea.

“I see a lot of these ads trying to do a take on pop culture and what’s going on,” says Sandler.” Large Midwest companies [like Ford] are the most conservative clients I’ve ever worked with, so it’s surprising to me that that type of company would allow that kind of advertising… If it’s a mock up, it wasn’t approved, and it might be that someone in the company posted it online and it blew up. It’s terrible that things like that happen, because consumers don’t have time to look into these things. They react instantly.”

4. Dunkin’ Donuts Thailand’s “Charcoal”

This bizarre Thai ad for “charcoal donuts” created an uproar worldwide—and by the Human Rights Watch—for its alleged use of blackface. While Nadim Salhani, Dunkin’ Donuts Thailand’s CEO, thought the backlash “ridiculous” and accused Americans of being “paranoid,” Dunkin’s chief communications officer, Karen Raskopf, issued an official apology and announced that Dunkin’ would pull the associated TV spot.

The commercial featured a woman taking a bite of a charcoal donut that turned her skin black and somehow gave her a ’50s beehive hairdo, creating an image “reminiscent of 19th and early 20th century American stereotypes for black people that are now considered offensive symbols of a racist era,” the Huffington Post observed.

Some would argue for the upside of these ads using an old adage: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. But is that really true?

“Ads like these are just dumb,” says Kelly O’Keefe, professor at the VCU Brandcenter. “The trouble with shock-branding is that the flurry of attention wears off quickly and the consumer ends up with a worse impression of the brand than they started with. Great brands are not built with cheap shots, vulgar humor, or marginalizing groups of people.”

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