Ethical Marketing: When Ads Go Bad

Date Published:
August 25, 2022
Summer Stirling

Have you ever seen before and after photos in an ad that made you doubt their authenticity? A wrinkle cream demonstrated on a model airbrushed from reality?

How about ads targeting the insecurities of young girls?

These crimes against consumers are out there, and we don’t need more of them. Mistakes are one of the best ways we learn as humans, but the good news is- we don’t have to make them ourselves. 

Below are examples of unethical ads that should never have made it past the editor’s desk.

Targeting Insecurities

Treating people with basic respect is a low-bar expectation. Shaming your audience doesn't make sales, it makes you look bad.

Not only attacking your audience's insecurities -, but mocking this poor model to boot. Not even "beer goggles" will make this terrible ad better.

Nah, this doesn't promote disordered eating at all.

Oh PETA, we know you like shock value, but this isn't how you win the activism game.

In-AD-vertent Racism

I truly doubt that any of these marketing teams set out to make their ads explicitly racist. At least, I hope not. But surely someone could have stopped these train wrecks before they left the station.

I feel like there could have been a better, more inclusive tagline here.

"Re-civilize yourself"??? Really? Racism is uncivilized, Nivea.

There was exactly ZERO need to bring race into this, PlayStation.

Dove, trying to wash away melanin in 2017.


Yeah, sex sells. But there is a subtle and tasteful way to create appeal to the opposite sex. The following ads, however, embraced objectification, shame, and the outright death of women.

Because women aren't nearly as important as your workout.

Nothing like a little slut-shaming and degradation in your obnoxious banner ads.

An oldie, but a baddie.

The industry that drove women to eating disorders and drugs is now showcasing the product of their abuse to continue the cycle.

Blatant objectification. This model had no idea her image would be used in this way and called for a boycott after the ad ran.

The job that really matters? How about we don't market anything cleaning related to women on a day meant to celebrate them?

High fashion doesn't care if women are alive or dead, just as long as they look good in their clothing.

Misleading Marketing or Blatant Lies

If you're going to make a claim about your product, you better have the evidence to back it up. This is the age of information. People can find out pretty quickly if you're selling truth or lies.

VitaminWater got into quite a bit of trouble for false advertising when it was discovered that the drinks marketed as a healthy alternative to sodas actually contain eight teaspoons of sugar per bottle. The brand failed to mention this fact by advertising its products with the tagline “vitamins + water = all you need”.

Can POM Wonderful actually treat, prevent or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, or erectile dysfunction? According to the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. federal court, no. By Ruling, the company that makes POM cannot state such claims in advertising, and found that its owners had misled consumers in advertising their products.

Twiggy is an icon. A stunning woman, even now. But this is not what she looks like. Seventy-two years old only looks like this with some heavy-handed airbrushing.


60 percent of water bottles end up as litter, landfill waste, or harmful gases from incineration. In no reality is a single-use, plastic bottle of water, that has been shipped worldwide "green".

Korean cosmetics brand Innisfree’s face serum had “Hello, I‘m Paper Bottle” written on the outside. But this "paper bottle" was revealed to have a plastic lining by the waste-free group No Plastic Shopping.

And one more for the road: Maybe don't use suicide in your commercial.

According to the WHO, over 700 000 people die due to suicide every year. And suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. It's no joke, and it has no place in the promotion of your product.


This list of bad examples is anything but exhaustive. I'd encourage anyone, new or veteran, in the marketing game to spend time studying the ad crimes companies have made.

Some things will always be taboo, others change with the times. And, while P.T. Barnum might believe that “There's no such thing as bad publicity", others have learned the hard way that there is.

So, what's the worst advertisement you've seen?