Most Controversial Ads of Recent Times and Their Backstories

I believe that powerful advertisements trigger emotion and impulsive decisions. Designed to influence and control, advertising manipulates our thoughts, feelings, and actions to achieve commercial gain.

Ryan Chute
Ryan Chute
October 7, 2022
Most Controversial Ads of Recent Times and Their Backstories

I believe that powerful advertisements trigger emotion and impulsive decisions. Designed to influence and control, advertising manipulates our thoughts, feelings, and actions to achieve commercial gain.

But while some controversial ads are created to spark discussion and challenge societal norms, others cause public outrage and backlash.

How do we define what’s controversial?

I define controversial ads as those that provoke strong reactions from the public. They might be offensive, harmful, or in bad taste. As a result of careless marketing decisions, controversial ads can cause severe damage to its reputation. Others, however, cause lifelong damage to the brand, customers, and the people that endorse(d) it.

Here are my picks for the 12 most controversial ads of all time:

12 of the Most Controversial Ads of All Time

People are drawn to controversial ads because they provoke a reaction from the public. Some people find them offensive, while others see them as a form of clever marketing. These ads are not afraid to push boundaries.

Whether you love them or hate them, there’s no denying that controversial ads get people talking. From banned commercials to bad print advertisements, here are my picks of the most controversial ads of all time:

PEPSI – Live Bolder, Live Louder

2020 held a lot of challenges– and for various reasons.

The United States, in particular, saw historic levels of social injustice alongside a global pandemic. After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans at the hands of police, widespread protests ensued.

Like many other brands, Pepsi filmed and released a commercial responding to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Featuring Kendall Jenner, the ad showcases a group of protesters marching while the model hands a police officer a Pepsi.

This commercial was widely criticized for appropriating the BLM movement and trivializing the very real issues of racial injustice. In the wake of the backlash, Pepsi pulled the ad and released an apology, stating, “This is a global movement. We should all be part of the conversation.”

McDonald_s Restaurants

McDonald’s Restaurants

In 2017, McDonald’s released a commercial to advertise their Fillet-O-Fish. In the commercial, a young boy asks his mother various questions about his late father. Finding that he significantly differed from him, the boy seems discouraged and disconnected. However, when the boy and his mother arrive at Mcdonald’s, he’s told that his father’s favorite meal is the Fillet-O-Fish. This was also his favorite.

This commercial attracted criticism because it trivialized grief. While the commercial may have intended to be heartwarming, many viewers found it insensitive. McDonald’s has since apologized for any offense the commercial may have caused and pulled it from the air.

So, how can you catch attention without the controversy?

At Wizard of Ads®, we believe the message makes the media work; the media does not make the message work. That being said, we will work to produce a disruptive story without the need for the PR Department to stay on standby. Book a call with Ryan Chute today to learn more about our process.

Bristol Dry Gin

Alongside Pepsi’s distasteful commercial in 2020, other brands attempted to market the BLM movement that faced immense criticism. Bristol Dry Gin is a distillery in the UK that drew massive amounts of backlash for its distasteful Twitter post. The post read, “When the shooting starts, the looting starts,” followed by encouragement to use their gin as flammable devices.

Shortly after the post was made, the company removed it and released an apology. This apology, however, did not stop many businesses from dropping their product from their stores.


In my opinion, Lush, a popular cosmetics brand, crossed the line in 2018 while referencing the British police system. Using the hashtag #spycops, Lush urged the public to demand an end to undercover police spying on activists. In the commercial, a woman is seen conversing with a man who turns out to be an undercover cop.

Because the commercial asserted that cops are paid to lie, it faced backlash from the police and their families. This outrage was taken to social media, where the hashtag #flushlush became viral. In response, Lush issued an apology and pulled the commercial.

Hyundai – Pipe Job

In 2013, Hyundai released commercial advertising their new ix35, which emits 100 percent water emissions. In the commercial, a man tapes a pipe from his exhaust to his window and starts his engine. The camera focuses on his sitting back with the garage closed, looking defeated. After exiting his vehicle, however, the man appears hydrated.

This controversial ad faced backlash as it was insensitive to those who lost loved ones to suicide or those who are suicidal. Hyundai released a statement apologizing for the ad and pulled it from the air.

Miracle Mattress

Miracle Mattress released a short advertisement on their social media in 2016 referencing the devastating terrorist attacks on September 11th. The commercial shows two men behind a woman with mattresses stacked to mimic the Twin Towers behind them. As part of their “Twin Tower Sale,” the woman is shown knocking the men behind her into the mattresses. The mattresses toppled over as the Twin Towers did after being struck.

Damaging their reputation irreparably, Miracle Mattress learned the hard way that some topics are just too sensitive to joke about. The company later apologized for the offensive advertisement, but not before social media lit up with outrage. The post has since been deleted.

Dove – Real Beauty Campaign

Dove – Real Beauty Campaign

Dove received a massive backlash after releasing a commercial that depicted a black woman turning white after using their lotion. The commercial showed a black woman removing her top to reveal a white woman underneath. Many people interpreted the commercial as suggesting that white skin is the standard of beauty.

Sparking racist rumors, Dove quickly defended itself, stating that the commercial was misinterpreted. This sparked the hashtag #donewithdove on Twitter, with many people vowing never to use the brand’s products again.

Dove has since issued an apology and has pulled the commercial from the air.

WWF – the Tsunami Relief Campaign

In 2008, the WWF released an advertisement depicting the scenes of 9/11, listing the number of deaths. Showing cut scenes of planes striking the twin towers, they listed the number of deaths caused by the 2004 tsunami. Comparing these numbers, the WWF stated, “Our Planet is Brutally Powerful. Respect it. Conserve it.”

This commercial was extremely insensitive as the WWF capitalized on the tragic events of 9/11. The commercial faced widespread criticism and was quickly pulled from the air. The WWF reportedly placed blame upon its less experienced staff.

LifeLock – Social Security Number

In 2006, LifeLock, a US identity theft protection company, launched an advertisement that featured the CEO’s social security number. The company was confident that their services would protect him, so they printed his social security number in the ad. (Un)surprisingly, within days of the ad’s launch, the CEO’s identity was stolen more than once.

In a (slightly) humorous way, I think the ad did a great job showcasing the effects of poor advertising.

The company had to pay a 12 million dollar fee due to the false advertisement. The company has been associated with lying and poor service, damaging its reputation and overall revenue.


Dettol is a multi-purpose antiseptic disinfectant used for household cleaning and disinfecting the skin. Their controversial advertisement features an image of a dead body with a man walking away covered in blood. Alongside the imagery, the tagline reads, “When ordinary soap just won’t do..”

Sparking extreme controversy, the ad does not perform well due to associating their product with murder and death. Simply put, there are many other ways to market disinfectants without using such graphic and disturbing images.


Sparking rumors of misogyny, Sprite released an advertisement in 2016 with the tagline, “She’s seen more ceilings than Michelangelo.” This controversial ad was posted on the news website, which is popular among young people in Ireland. The ad received immediate backlash, with many people finding it highly offensive.

Proving that sex doesn’t always sell, Coca-cola later released a statement apologizing and pulled it from circulation. However, the ad had already been widely shared online, damaging Sprite’s reputation.



In 2018, KFC addressed the chicken shortage crisis by rationing chicken and even closing some of its stores in Britain. To apologize for the inconvenience, KFC ran a full-page ad with the headline, “FCK.”

By rearranging their letters, they attempted to showcase their mutual anger alongside their customers. However, this advertisement did not come without backlash as some people thought using the F-word was inappropriate.

How, then, can you successfully advertise without controversy?

Ad design can quickly become controversial if you’re not careful. It’s easy to unintentionally offend someone with your ad, especially if you’re targeting a large audience. As such, it’s essential to be aware of the potential pitfalls of ad design before you get started.

At Wizard of Ads®, we understand the importance of ad design and take the time to get it right. Our hand-picked team of storytellers works to create effective ad campaigns that catch attention without crossing the line. Book a call today to learn more about our process, or get started on your next ad campaign.

(Strong Ads)
Ryan Chute
Ryan Chute

Helping small businesses become BIG brands with a holistic marketing strategy that speaks the same language across all sales and marketing channels.

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Who does the Wizard of Ads® for Contractors work with?

Wizard of Ads® for Contractors work with healthy and growing Residential Home Service Contractors hungry to grow by multiples, like you.

You are ready, willing, and able to grow your business. You are open to change and are seeking a distinctive angle of approach to gain the time and attention of a too-busy public.

You know that lasting relationships take time, patience, and good energy to nurture and cultivate. We carefully enter into every arrangement with the intention of working with you for as long as you own your business. You prefer lasting partnerships.

You are already a solid operator. You have successfully grown your business and appreciate the impact the right brand story will have to get to the next level in your operation. You know a strong relational message takes time to gain momentum, but it’s worth the one-time short-term discomfort for the long-term gains.

Marketing cannot fix a failing business.

We accelerate what’s already happening in a business. If your business is on the rocks, marketing will only speed up the inevitable.  

You’re focused on lasting change that leads to exponential, profitable growth, not just sales at any cost. Intuitively, you know that communication that enhances every element of your customer's experience and your employee's culture is the key to your success.

How does the Wizard of Ads® for Contractors charge?

Traditional marketing agencies are designed to capture the greatest amount of revenue from a client, regardless of results. Every last item is billed and expensed to the client. Typical agency fees can represent a whopping 55% of the entire advertising budget. That means a $5 million dollar advertising budget, you would spend $2.75 million on agency fees.

Think of Wizard of Ads® for Contractors as the Anti-Agency.

Our income is not tied to your advertising budget. Our income is exclusively tied to your growth. Our goal is to maximize your advertising impact with the lowest reasonable spend. This allows you to spend only what is necessary or to put extra horsepower into aggressively growing in your market.

The genius of this model is that it perfectly aligns our motivations as true partners for exponential profitable growth without the pain of being unaffordable. Ultimately, we are confident in taking the risk of being underpaid in the first few years because we know the results always speak for themselves.

Next, we do not accept commissions, referral fees, kickbacks, or other compensation from any service providers we recommend or engage for production work. Most agencies do. This includes the 15% agency commission for media buying. This approach is considerably different from the compensation plan employed by most advertising agencies, as it eliminates any potential conflicts of interest and allows us to focus our entire attention on helping you grow your business profitably as a true partner. For example, a $500,000 annual media buy would involve a $75,000 commission that we would have removed directly from your media providers' invoices.

This is the perfect pricing model for Residential Home Services.

By tying ourselves to gross revenue, we only have one motivation. Your motivation. We have no motivation to convince you to spend more money on marketing than what is necessary, and since we are a variable expense to sales, we NEVER become too expensive to have us on your team.

In almost every case, we end up lowering the amount of money you spend. We will stay within your planned marketing budget, including your media spend, production, and our Annual Fee. Add on the fact that you get any and all commissions back for media buys and various services provided by outside providers, and you will actually save money having us on your team.

Don’t forget, we have the largest buying power in North America for media buying, meaning for every dollar you spend buying media, we only spend 27 cents on average. This stretches your reach, impact, and frequency in a way no other agency (or yourself) can achieve on your own, saving you hundreds of thousands of dollars, eventually millions, every single year.

Clients who heed our advice and embrace our Marketing Strategy quickly add $1 million in incremental revenue to their business, making your investment a smart bet and a bit of a no-brainer.  

There is no longer any guesswork, hope, or fear that our marketing strategies are going to work. If our client’s are able to abandon any limiting beliefs about marketing, deliver operational excellence, and play the long game, our marketing strategy will accelerate their profitable growth.

Wizard of Ads® for Contractors pricing model is based solely on the topline revenue of your company. It consists of an Upfront Fee and an Annual Fee. These fees are inclusive of scheduled travel, services, and all other expenditures as outlined in the Consulting Agreement.

The Upfront Fee covers the intensive Uncovery Process, the first year’s Media Buy, the Creative Process, and the Market Research while the Annual Fee goes toward implementation, ongoing creative and consulting, and next year's media buy. You get a team of 3.5 people, with direct access to a top tier Creative Lead and Media Buyer, and on-demand access to me as your Master Strategist. You will also have a full-time Account Manager keeping everything on track.

While the upfront does have an initial pinch, it is easy to amortize the investment over the many years we will be working together to grow your business. Wizard of Ads® retain clients for 10 years, on average. The sale of the business is the number one reason for termination. We actively terminate the bottom 1% of clients who are unwilling or unable to follow our strategies.

Wizard of Ads® for Contractors believes that all rewards should be directly correlated to the success of our clients. This means that the Wizard of Ads® for Contractors only receives a raise when the company achieves growth. For example, if your gross sales for the year have increased by 25%, the Annual Fee you pay us in the following year will also be increased by 25%. Likewise, if your gross sales decrease, our Annual Fee will decrease by the same percentage during the following year.

This is an exceptionally easy and fair way to track and reward success. This model was developed by Wizard of Ads® over 35 years ago and has served us well because it serves our clients well.

As a rule of thumb, we take the risk of working for considerably less than our actual value in the first few years as we help accelerate growth. This means you need to be willing to pay us exceptionally well when you start doing even better.

When should I engage The Wizard of Ads® for Contractors?

There are four key revenue stages for engagement with the Wizard of Ads® for Contractors.

  1. Under $3.6 million in revenue
  2. Between $3.6 and $10 million in revenue
  3. Between $10 and $20 million in revenue
  4. Over $20 million in revenue

Under $3.6 million in revenue is an investment in your brand. This will serve you well in establishing your brand story early on and help you with your name, logo, and truck wrap design. It's easier to create pictures from a story than it is to make a story based on pre-drawn pictures. You'll be glad you did. Everyone on a fast path to growth is.

Most clients start with Wizard of Ads® for Contractors between $3.6 and $10 million in revenue. They have often seen a natural ceiling with their leads for demand service and are looking for ways to push past the ceiling. This can only be done with a properly executed brand strategy, specifically in mass media with a sticky story.

Between $10 and $20 million in revenue, Wizard of Ads® for Contractors has some natural economies of scale. This is a sweet spot where Wizard of Ads® for Contractors can offer some added value in getting the ball rolling.

Over $20 million in revenue is actually the lowest cost point of entry as a percentage of revenue, but not the cheapest time to start with the Wizard of Ads® for Contractors. Leveraging all economies of scale aside, we have been left out of the upside along the way, so engaging when over $20 million in revenue means we have to mend a lot of fences damaged along the way. This is also where clients see significant savings in their media buys and production costs.

There are also three market sizes to consider.

  • Primary Markets are the top 50 cities in America.
  • Secondary Markets are the smaller cities in America.
  • Tertiary Markets are the more rural trade areas in America.

When considering an engagement with The Wizard of Ads® for Contractors, consider what size market you are in. For example, a $3.6 million company in a Primary Market will struggle to get the necessary reach needed to make a splash. You either have to be more patient than a larger company or spend more money to accelerate your reach.

Alternatively, a $5 million company in a Secondary Market will look like a pretty darn big fish in a medium-sized pond.

A $20 Million company in a Primary Market will feel like a $50 million company using our strategies to potential customers.

The key to remember is that the earlier you start with the Wizard of Ads® for Contractors, the lower the investment to get started. As they say, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

Are production costs included in your fees?

The Wizard of Ads® for Contractors Creative Lead will create the ad copy, cast the voice actors, source the production house, direct the performance, pick the music bed, manage all the edits, and provide you with the completed ad for final approval before sending to air on your behalf. This is included in our fees.

You pay for the production house, actors, royalty-free music, and jingles directly to avoid any potential for markups, commissions, or management fees.

We have many friends in the industry that give our clients good deals due to the large volume of work we provide them. We will introduce you to them.

How long before a brand-forward strategy starts working?

In approximately three months of activation, we’ll just be getting live on air. In six months (3 months on air), you’ll be getting anecdotal feedback from people that you are being heard, but there will be no direct line to revenue.

After 6 months on the air, you’ll think you made the biggest mistake of your life signing up for this branding nonsense. After 9 months on the air (12 months in) you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel.

At 12 full months on the air, you’ll know why you did this branding thing. Two years from now, we'll be clinking champagne flutes as you wonder why you didn’t do this sooner.

How long before we’re live?

The general guideline is 70-120 days, depending on the level of production needed and if there is a name change to your business.

This includes an onsite visit, a deep dive into research, and getting things created, negotiated, approved, produced, and live on the air.

  • Uncovery - 15-30 days based on travel. 1-2 days onsite.
  • Research - 30-60 days based on the scope of work.
  • Creative and Media Buy Process - 45 to 60 days
  • Offline Production - 15 days for radio. 30 - 60 days for television.
  • Online Production (if switching) - 60 days

This means planning for roughly 90 to 120 days in the proper development and production of a completely unique Marketing Strategy before anything hits the airwaves.

Are you exclusive?

Creatively, yes. During the term of this Agreement, all Creative Partners assigned to your Account shall not engage, directly or indirectly, as an employee, officer, manager, partner, consultant, agent, owner, or in any other capacity, in any competition of the client, including any company engaged in marketing consulting.

For clarity, the Creative Partner is defined as the individual Wizard of Ads® Partners who is responsible for creating your creative strategy and ongoing creative copy. Competition is defined as companies that engage in the same industry and business units (e.g., HVAC, Plumbing, etc.) as you. The market area is defined as the area where the marketing message naturally reaches through DMA or 60 miles from the city center of the client's service area(s).

Naturally, we exclude any potential future competition in markets where you are not currently active at the date of signing.

We do not limit Media Buyers in any market. Media Buyers get better deals for larger volumes, making it beneficial for the client to have the Media Buyer available to do as many buys as possible to secure the best deals on the client’s behalf.

Do you do digital marketing?

In rare circumstances, Wizard of Ads® for Contractors will provide specific digital marketing solutions. Wizard of Ads® has very specific Partners that provide digital services that serve Residential Home Services effectively. Under no circumstances will digital marketing services be offered without Wizard of Ads® for Contractors' core solution.

It is most likely that Wizard of Ads® for Contractors will work with your existing digital partners and suppliers. If you do not have a reliable digital provider, we would be happy to introduce you to a number of great providers that play nice with Wizards.

Do you do jingles?

Wizard of Ads® for Contractors can assist you in getting a jingle for your business. Like any other tactical element of a marketing strategy, we do not produce a jingle for the sake of a jingle.

If you do not have a story or a strategic reason to have a jingle...or an ad campaign to tie it to, do not waste your hard-earned money on a jingle. You are wasting your time and money.

When you do build a single unified marketing strategy that incorporates a jingle for a specific (often scientific) reason, we have a Jingle Wizard who has studied the art and science of jingle design.

He will score you an original, royalty-free jingle, including professional singers, musicians, and producers. He will not knock off a generic jingle from a publicly available music bed that sounds like everyone else's jingle.

Your jingle will serve a very specific reason and produce a very specific result. Have you guessed how much we love jingles yet?

Who owns the copyrights?

Wizard of Ads® for Contractors owns your copyright for two very specific reasons. We also provide a fair use clause in all contracts to ensure you are in no way limited to the access of your creative works, whether you are working with us or not.

The first reason we own your copyright is to ensure that we do not have to go up against our own creative works in other markets we serve. This means you are not allowed to lend, give, borrow, tweak, rent, lease, or sell your creative works to any other company at any time.

The second reason we own your copyright is that we can establish a one-time value for your creative works in the event that someone steals the content. Upon selling you the copyrights, you can go after the perpetrator for theft and make a considerable bounty in a slam dunk case.

Here is how Wizard of Ads® word the fair use of your copyright for as long as your business is in operation:

All writing and/or marketing materials we create for you are not works-for-hire. Wizard of Ads® for Contractors hereby irrevocably grants you, and your successors in interest, the non-exclusive, royalty-free, non-transferable, and worldwide right to use the Works in connection with the marketing of your business pursuant to the Marketing Strategy for so long as your business is operational.
How do I measure brand results?

There are a number of interesting ways to measure results. Some people like to get unique identifying telephone numbers, or create branded URLs that redirect to landing pages or the website. However, much of this is a waste of time and energy as it never tells the true story of the brand journey and how it affected the decision-making process.

Other indicators of brand effectiveness include tracking new customers, reactivated customers, or running a brand equity survey to get a sense of your share of mind. Digitally you will see direct search increase, which cannot be affected by anything digital, as well as branded keyword inquiries increase. You’ll, of course, need to get your digital people to add these to your campaigns if you hope to see an increase in conversions.

Wizard of Ads® for Contractors tracks the simplest of indicators. Top line revenue. When your branding takes effect, and the company responds in kind from the phone call or form fill-on, top-line revenue will increase. Efficacy is plotted on a T12, and total lead volume from all sources is tracked.

12 things you should know before signing up.
  1. Quality relationships take time. Branding is a long-term strategy. That’s why most contractors do it wrong, or not at all. There is always a lag between the start of the new campaign and the time it takes your customers to connect the dots. You MUST BE READY, WILLING, AND ABLE to endure this lag period. In our experience, the lag is typically 6 to 9 months, depending on how competitive the marketplace is, your company’s reputation, your budget in relation to reach, and the eight uncontrollable environmental factors. During this time, we will be helping you implement a transition plan to ease the pain. The good news is that this lag only happens once.
  2. Decisions by Committee. We completely reject the notion of decisions by committee. We work with a single, courageous decision-maker. We welcome decision influencers, but we only look to the Owner for the final decision. All decision-makers and influencers must be involved in the Uncovery and Marketing Strategy Presentation if they want to offer input in the future. It is critical that we have a 100% fully approved plan that can be defended and championed by all leaders in the organization.  
  3. Proven Strategy. That means we are not the low-cost provider. With nearly 200 home service clients and a book of strategic devices, tools, and tactics, this isn’t a guessing game for us. We know what to do to make your externally triggered grudge purchase appealing to your potential buyers. If you can deliver the goods, we can continue building relationships. If you are uncomfortable with the idea that you are paying us less now so that you can pay us considerably more once revenues allow, please do not commit. We intend to be your true partners, in sickness and in long as you own your business.
  4. Automatic Payments. Everything is on automatic payments. If you struggle with managing cash flow, figure that out in your business first. We accept all major credit cards and ACH payments.
  5. We Cause Problems. If you don’t have a capacity issue now, I promise you will in about 9 months. Let’s deal with recruitment out of the gate as part of your comprehensive marketing strategy.
  6. We Own the Copyrights. All writing and/or marketing materials we create for you are not works-for-hire. We irrevocably grant you, and your successors in interest, the non-exclusive, royalty-free, non-transferable, and worldwide right to use the Works in connection with the marketing of your business pursuant to the Marketing Strategy for so long as your business is operational.
  7. Brand Building. We will be steering you to limit the use of discounts, rebates, coupons, and sales to attract clients. We know this feels counterintuitive to many, and we will clarify our reasoning. Rest assured, we have considerable experience in creating similar offers that are not damaging to your profitability, your brand’s integrity, and your preferable long-term client relations.
  8. Creative Authority. We must have creative authority over the words. You can accept copy as written or reject it outright, but you cannot modify the words yourself. If you do not like something as written, we are happy to discuss it and make the necessary change to maintain the integrity and intention of the words chosen. Alternatively, we will scrap the concept and create new copy that you are happy to get behind 100%.
  9. Proprietary Algorithm. The media buy must be structured in a very specific way, including running a full 52-week schedule. It is based on brain chemistry, not P&Ls. Once we have committed to the buy, it’s important to avoid adjustments unless they are calculated additions.
  10. Knucklehead Factor. You should expect knuckleheads. For example, when you start running ads that are certain to get attention, you need the courage to continue running those ads, even when you receive complaints. We celebrate complaints. It means we’ve made people feel.
  11. Digital Weasels. In about three months from the time your advertising campaign hits the airways, your digital marketers will show you a marked increase in direct and organic traffic. Some Digital Marketers will mistakenly claim this success as their own. Done properly, you can continue to spend less and less on digital lead generation by increasing your branded keyword online presence.
  12. Annual Marketing Meetings. Travel permitting, we prefer to hold Annual Marketing Meetings (AMMs) outside your city. Years of experience have taught us that we get better results when decision-makers are outside their sphere of influence, away from the day-to-day distractions of the office.

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