Marketing Fails: Five Monumental Christmas Marketing Campaign Blunders

June 25, 2023 , 5 minutes
Christmas Marketing Blunders

A little shock value or dark humour might make a Christmas marketing campaign memorable, but some creative directors dare to walk the fine line between brilliant and offensive. These notorious Christmas campaigns from around the world were certainly memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.  

1) Give the gift that knocks a woman off her feet  

In 2012, a Christmas ad that clearly crossed the line appeared on Virgin Mobile USA’s website. 

“Necklace? Or chloroform?” the ad read, with an image of a man covering the eyes of a surprised woman with one hand, a small gift box in the other hand.

Chloroform is a solvent once used as an anaesthetic, alluding to a familiar scene in crime movies and TV shows. The perpetrator, armed with a chloroform-soaked rag, sneaks up behind their victim, covering the victim’s nose and mouth with the rag, which promptly renders them unconscious. Although the effect is a little exaggerated, the implication in the ad—that this woman was about to be sexually assaulted or harmed in some other way—was unmistakable.  

Given the immediate outrage the ad generated, its online presence was very short-lived. Even Richard Branson, who sold the company in 2006, stepped in, denouncing the ad as “ill-judged” and calling for its removal before it soiled the Virgin brand. After removing it, Virgin Mobile claimed that the ad was a “rogue post by an external agency that was not approved by the Virgin Mobile USA brand marketing group.”

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2) Learning the true meaning of Christmas the hard way

When eager children opened window #8 of Tony’s Chocolonely Christmas Countdown calendar, they didn’t get what they expected. Anticipating a tiny fair-trade chocolate, they were met with an empty slot, upsetting some of them to the point of tears.

On its website, the Dutch company, which produces “100% slave-free” chocolate, explains that its bars are unequally divided to reflect the reality of inequality in the chocolate industry. Their Christmas advent calendar is also designed with this message in mind. Although the company stands behind its message and some consumers have praised its marketing approach as a conversation starter, the following message was included on the company’s website in response to the backlash from angry parents (particularly those of children with ADHD and autism): “We failed to consider the difficulties empty windows can cause for neurodivergent children & adults.”

At least door #9 contains two tiny chocolates, hopefully appeasing the traumatized children.


3) Spreading rosy-cheeked cheer a little too far

The 2016 McDonald’s festive McCafé coffee cup left room for creative interpretation. The original cup, which depicted a pair of overlapping mittens with “Warmest Greetings” written in the centre, was innocent enough, but it was modified into a meme by one dirty-minded Twitter user, who added fingers to the thumb of each mitten with a pen and posted a photo. The disturbing result? Hands spreading bare butt cheeks apart.

The tweet went viral, with those who saw it unable to “unsee” it afterwards. As you can imagine, the spinoff of the original cup was regarded as hilarious by some and offensive by others. “Don’t any companies keep a 12-year-old on hand for this?” a Twitter user commented, implying that McDonalds should have a kid on board to screen for potential immature interpretations of its designs.

Although a McDonalds spokesperson stated that the mitten design was intended to be just that, the question of whether this was the master plan of some cheeky McDonalds ad exec remains open to speculation. Either way, McDonalds should probably be thanking Sam Sykes, the Twitter prankster, for the extra media attention.


4) An All-American Australian Christmas

Meet the Tinkletons, an American family who show up unannounced to an Australian family’s home for the holidays in Aldi Australia’s 2016 Christmas commercial. Sporting identical ugly Christmas sweaters and perfectly coiffed blonde hair, the Tinkletons overenthusiastically proceed to impose their American Christmas traditions in irritating sing-songy voices. By the end of the commercial, they’ve changed their tune, preferring the Australian Christmas traditions to their own and pledging to return next year.

The commercial received mixed reviews, some taking it in good humour and others feeling offended. One especially disturbed viewer lodged a complaint to the Advertising Standards Board, accusing Aldi of “racially vilifying” Americans as “gaudy, pushy, and weird.” The inclusion of an “overly camp mustachioed man” was also seen by the complainant as an offensive representation of gay men. After confronting Aldi with the complaints, the Board concluded that the company did not commit any wrongdoing and dismissed the case.


5) All I want for Christmas is an AR-15

In a controversial 2014 ad posted on Facebook by Canada’s National Firearms Association, Santa hands over an assault rifle to a delighted young boy. The caption reads “Don’t shoot your eye out, kid!” in reference to the 1984 movie “A Christmas Story,” in which the character Ralphie really wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and ends up almost losing an eye when he gets his wish.

For obvious reasons—namely, an adult gifting a gun to a minor—the NFA was reprimanded on social media. Adding to outrage was the fact that the same gun, a restricted firearm in Canada, was also used in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Connecticut, USA, in December 2012.

Many NFA supporters didn’t see a problem with the ad, claiming that the organization would be slammed by anti-firearm activists no matter the ad’s content.

With Christmas only 6 months away, we take a look at five monumental Christmas marketing campaign blunders.

So there you have it. Some of our favourite, and more unusual, Christmas marketing fails over the past few years.