Commercials and advertisements are a way of life. Even if you spend the majority of your time streaming TV shows and movies, you’ll eventually find yourself watching Superbad on TBS and being inundated with dumb ads. Or, you may be reading up on the news for the day and having to scroll past an ad every 10 seconds. Either way — advertisements are unavoidable. Luckily, they're not all bad. Some are even funny! But the real lucky thing is that most ads today are just boring and annoying because back in the day (okay, even today!) many print ads were problematic AF!
There are so many advertisements that we cannot believe were ever cleared to run! From eras in history that were much less woke right up to today, there are so many advertisements that are utterly shocking. From sexist content to blatant racism there are plenty of ads that definitely don’t deserve to be remembered. We sure can’t believe they were even printed to begin with!
Oh boy, this one. Not only is Fluid Hair promoting their salon in Edmonton, Alberta but they’re also promoting domestic violence! The ad shows a woman sitting on a couch with crazy styled hair... and a big black eye! Her presumed significant other stands behind the couch brooding and we can’t even believe this is a real thing. The salon is all but saying “your boyfriend may beat you, but at least you’ll have fabulous hair!” Domestic violence advocates came out swinging against the salon and for their part, they just said, “Is it to everyone’s taste? Probably not.” Real classy.
NY Daily News
I think that tagline speaks for itself! The ad declares that even a woman can open this ketchup bottle “without a knife blade, a bottle opener” or — get this — “a husband.” Yikes. The message here is clearly that women are helpless without their husbands except for when a product is specifically designed for them to be able to open it with their frail little hands. The blatant sexism here would never fly today (at least not without huge backlash!), but in 1953 it was par for the course. We just want to know how they got that woman in the ad to look so thrilled about opening a bottle without her husband!
If not for the BMW logo in the corner, we wouldn’t know this was an ad for a car. But it does do something that car dealerships have been doing for way too long: using half-naked women to sell cars. The ad features a woman staring suggestively towards the camera with a tagline that says “You know you’re not the first. But do you really care?” It makes the act of selling a car inherently sexual when it so doesn’t need to be. Sex sells, sure, but we can’t see where an image like this would compel someone to drop major dough on a luxury car!
Ah, more 1950s advertisement sexism! Women in the ‘50s were basically seen as beings that cooked and clean, at least in the advertising world. This ad puts on full display the sexism that was deemed okay by way too many people. Not only is the ad saying a wife’s role is in the kitchen cooking dinner but she’s seen visibly distraught by assumingly burning dinner. She’s failed her husband! How tragic! To top it all off, it seems the husband is mocking her inability to cook by saying at least she didn’t burn the beer. If a man ever said that to us, we might burn him!
Does the sexism ever stop in advertising?! Probably not, because here’s another shockingly sexist ad. The ad shows a wife who has made a Jell-O dessert for her husband after a promotion, but the problem is she doesn’t really know what his promotion is! This ad portends that women are so ditzy that they couldn’t possibly know what an “Assistant Vice President” does. She has her mouth ajar like she’s shocked and awed at what her husband is accomplishing while she’s in the kitchen. It’s all pretty tasteless — much like most things you make with Jell-O!
It’s hard to know exactly what’s being sold with this ad but it’s easy to see what they’re choosing to highlight: boobs! The ad is, seemingly, for skis but we’re not quite sure what the intent was. Who skis like this?! Absolutely no one, and we can’t believe the old saying “sex sells” would possibly apply to skis. Because when we see this picture, we see a woman who probably fell in the snow bare-breasts-forward and that sounds painful.
Special K has, for the most part, been a brand that preaches the health benefits of their products and how every woman should be comfortable in their own skin. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t had some advertising slip-ups every now and then! In this ad, a woman stands in a red dress with the tagline “The look that makes him look again.” It’s basically saying if you eat Special K, you’ll get skinny and get the man. Objectification in a cereal ad should be shocking, but after seeing some of these ads, we’re not too surprised.
There may be two women in this ad but that doesn’t make it any less sexist. One woman is trying to talk about some important Metrobus stats and her friend literally responds with “can’t we just talk about shoes?” Are women so devoid of interest in anything but fashion and beauty in advertisers' minds that they can’t talk to a friend without having it be about shoes? This one is super strange and we’re still not quite sure what they were going for.
American Apparel was never been shy in their advertising. They were known for the controversial aspects of their promotion. This one is no different and may be one of the most blatantly off-putting ones ever. In it, a woman is laying down with her legs spread and the words “Now open” emblazoned above her. We all know what that was supposed to mean, and here we have another instance of sex being used to sell something not inherently sexual. The company no longer exists and we’re wondering if their upsetting ads had anything to do with it!
Blatant racism in an ad is nothing new. But the fact that this ad came out fairly recently, in 2012, is a little more surprising. The company was clearly trying to capitalize on the Bollywood trend but did so in a completely racist way. Appropriating a culture to sell chips leaves a sour taste in our mouth that definitely doesn’t make us want to eat Pop Chips! We can’t believe this one got past the development stage in this day and age, but we’re sure the backlash was severe!
When I think of french fries, I’m not usually thinking of a tall, blonde, gorgeous woman. But that’s just me. Apparently, this is how McD’s decided to sell their french fries, which just seems totally bizarre. It’s basically sexualizing french fries for no good reason! This is a total miss from a fast food giant that usually has some decent ads. This one, though, will go down as one of their worst.
The Hollywood Reporter
This 2016 billboard was so blatantly sexist that it was actually taken down soon after going up. Apparently, there are very different things men and women can do in their Calvins. Women can seduce and men can make money. It’s totally tone deaf and that’s exactly why the Soho sign was taken down rather quickly. Not only are women and men being pigeonholed into roles, they ad also showed a woman splayed suggestively and a man just facing the camera.
This ad series ran in Ireland in 2016 and was part of a campaign called #BrutallyRefreshing, assumingly for "brutal truths" in the ads. But this one was too brutal. The ad is emblazoned with the words “You’re not popular, you’re easy” and sorry, but being told we’re easy definitely doesn’t make us want to buy Sprite! Insulting your customers (assumingly mostly females with this ad!) is no way to sell soft drinks. Plus, it’s slut-shaming of the highest order. There’s no shame in being “easy” or, you know, enjoying sex like a normal human being! How about we get that straight, Sprite!
Bacon, hot girls, threesome imagery. This one hits all the points for what advertisers think they need to show to appeal to men. All the while objectifying women as objects to sell meat with. We’re not sure how sexy we feel when we’re eating burgers, but okay Hardee’s! The exec of the company clearly didn’t think there was anything wrong with the ad and was very unconcerned with people taking offense. In Entrepreneur magazine he said, “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis.” Yikes!
Know Your Meme
This is an ad that had good intentions but ultimately fell flat. We all remember the big dress debate of 2015 — was it white and gold or black and blue?! Well, Salvation Army took the “black and blue” element of that debate and ran within. In the ad, they have a woman in the dress but also covered in bruises from a domestic abuser. While the message of domestic abuse recognition is most definitely important, the way they went about it was totally tone-deaf. You don’t use a meme to impart an important message. You just don’t!
The age-old strategy of pitting women against each other and making fat people think there is something wrong with them! This ad for protein candy bars shows two women, one skinny and one heavier, being thought of nothing more than women of certain sizes and inherently different attraction levels. The idea of one of these women being better than other merely because they’re a bit leaner is not only insulting to the women in the ad but to all women. Plus, the idea that a woman can’t eat a regular old candy bar without gaining tons of weight is exactly why so many women develop eating disorders and phobias of certain foods.
Oh look, more examples of using sex to sell something totally nonsexual! This time it’s voice-enabled electronics from the brand Voco. I don’t know about everyone else, but when I’m going to buy an electronic item, I’m researching the pros and cons of it — not hoping the ads are sexy enough to convince me to buy! The company clearly hasn’t risen into the upper echelon of electronics and ads like this may be why.
Stereotypes about women being bad drivers probably isn’t the best way to appeal to consumers to buy your car. Just a guess. This ad for the car brand MINI shows a woman looking terrified behind the wheel with the tagline “The Mini Automatic. For simple driving.” Because all women are such bad drivers that they must be scared to drive, right? We can’t believe this one ever got made — or that they ever thought they’d appeal to female drivers this way!
This Irish chip brand is also a huge supporter of Gaelic Football, so why not incorporate some of that imagery into an ad? Sounds great on paper, but the way they did it was totally ridiculous. They depicted a scantily-clad woman on a soccer field looking way sexier than necessary. We think that appealing to fans of the sport would have worked just fine without this sexist image to go along with it!
I guess there are only two ways to get lucky: with a woman, and on a betting website. At least that’s what Bet at Home would have you believe. The ad features a woman’s bottom half with underwear emblazoned with “If you can read this it’s your lucky day.” Classy, right? This one perpetuates the idea that women are a prize to be won and that you can get “lucky” by “winning” them. Pretty gross! Also, there should be a comma after "this."
Who thought this 2012 ad that promotes cheating would be a good idea?! In a bid to convince people not to skip their workouts, Reebok encourages men to skip out on their relationships instead! How about you don’t cheat on your girlfriend or the gym? There are plenty of ways to sell workout gear that doesn’t come with compromising your morals.
Sexism and ads from the ‘50s go hand in hand it seems. This one for Van Heusen ties shows a woman serving her husband breakfast in bed and presumably showing him that “it’s a man’s world.” We’re not sure how women bowing down to men and selling ties equates, but we’re not fans of it. The ad also goes on to make sure people know that it’s “For men only!” and that women should be so happy that they’re living in a man’s world. The blatant patriarchal sexism here is almost shocking except for when you realize people still think like this decades later!
How hard is it to sell ice cream? Just show some of the creamy deliciousness, maybe throw on a few toppings, and call it a day. Well, ice cream maker Antonio Federici took their plea for people to buy their product a bit too far. While ice cream can be a decadent indulgence, likening it to priests and nuns “giving in” to temptation takes it a bit too far. Because having sex and eating ice cream is apparently the same thing?! Members of the church were not having it and the ads were soon pulled from advertisers.
L’eggs may sell pantyhose for women, but at one time they were trying to appeal to men too. With Mr. L’eggs they were selling slacks, and apparently, they are so good they’ll make women urge you to walk all over them! The idea that a well-styled man would make a woman so weak in the knees that she would lay down and basically be his servant is absurd. But, unfortunately, we’re sure more than a few men bowed down to the idea that their Mr. L’eggs slacks would get them obedient women!
La Seniorita Mexican Restaurants
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” you undoubtedly know what it means but may not be too sure of where it comes from. The phrase is in reference to the 1978 Jonestown deaths where 900 followers of People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ drank a poisonous Kool-Aid mixture and died at the urging of their leader, Jim Jones. Many drank it by choice, while others were forced by their parents or family members. So this restaurant’s assertion that they have “better Kool-Aid” and that “it’s to die for” is in extremely poor taste!
Sega Sammy Holdings
The sad thing — we can totally see this ad being run today. The Sega gaming system was meant for kids and this punny ad is for sure too mature for them! Sega’s dirty joke isn’t as bad as some of the ads on this list, but we can’t imagine many parents were excited for their kids to see this flaccid joke. Plus, we can think of about 100 million different ways to market a video game system that isn’t penis-related!
This ad literally has a man bending his wife over his knee and spanking her for not “store-testing for fresher coffee.” Whatever the heck that means! The idea that a husband should essentially beat his wife for not making sure he has the freshest coffee on earth is ridiculous. If that’s the punishment for lying about the coffee then what happens when something more severe happens?! We don’t want to know.
Restaurant Brands International
This Singapore Burger King ad shows a woman about ready to take in a seven-inch burger with the slogan “It’ll blow your mind away.” Yeah, I think we all understand what they were getting at. Apparently eating a burger is akin to giving oral sex, who knew?! Apparently, the woman pictured didn’t know that her image would be used for a burger ad this lewd and she sought legal action against the company.
This ad for margarine is all about having a healthy heart in order to handle the heavy things life sends at you. Which makes sense! Margarine is seen as a healthier alternative to butter to keep your heart beating healthily. Well, the metaphorical “bullet” in this ad is a son telling their dad that they’re gay. The fact that simply telling your parent about your sexuality can be seen as something that would give them a heart attack is so offensive we can’t believe this ad exists. The 2013 ad was released in South Africa but eventually got pulled for the offensive content.
All we can say to this one is WOW. The ad for Nivea lotion insinuates that you aren’t civilized if you have an afro and need to clean up your appearance to “look like you give a damn.” The racial insensitivity is real with this ad. Obviously, there was a public backlash and Nivea ended up backtracking on the ad and apologizing for their error in judgment. What a huge error it was!
The Co-Operative Group
This one perpetuates gender stereotypes from a young age. It gives the idea that little girls don’t deserve candy, in this case a chocolate egg, if they don’t do the washing up and helping around the house. The fact that it’s geared towards “daughters” and “good girls” shows that the expectation is obviously not there for little boys. Giving girls the impression that they’re only good if they serve others around them is no way to raise them to feel equal to men — which they are.
There are a few consistent things in advertising, and one of them is that companies will always use the female body to sell things. Here’s another example of a woman’s body being sexualized to promote a fitness company. The giant billboard is 90% booty, proclaiming “There’s better things to be stuck behind than the car in the front.” A.k.a come and ogle this butt and let this overly-sexualized image convince you to join a gym. Or maybe just feel like a perv!
When it comes to tone-deaf ads, this one may take the cake. It should probably be pretty obvious that you shouldn’t change someone's skin color in an ad, but Dove’s out here proving that even the biggest companies don’t have common sense! The idea that cleaning your skin will change it from black to white is so insulting and we have no idea how this ad made it past the countless people who had to have worked on it. How did no one call out how crazy this is!? Luckily, the backlash was extreme and the ad wasn’t up very long.
There are so many things wrong with this ad. For one, they’re calling supermodel Naomi Campbell a diva. Then, they’re equating her, a Black woman, to a chocolate bar. Campbell was not into it. She said in a statement, “It’s upsetting to be described as chocolate, not just for me but for all black women and black people. I do not find any humor in this. It is insulting and hurtful.” The company issued an apology to the supermodel but the damage was already done and we can’t believe this ad was ever approved.
GIVI Holding S.p.A.
This one’s a little far-fetched but we can sort of see where people are coming from. In the ad Gigi Hadid walks with a man and two small children, presumably her own in the advertisement. The only issue: she was 21 when the ad ran in 2016 so to have had those children she would have been a teen mom. Many thought that she was promoting teen pregnancy and hit against the ad. To be honest, in an ad, you’re playing a character and hers may have been older than the real Hadid. Or, maybe just maybe, teen pregnancy isn’t the end of the world. The outraged continued, though, and many also questioned why the toddler in the stroller had a chain over their lap. This was just a bizarre situation!
This press company wanted to make sure that companies that target men “don’t miss them.” So they decided to show this in the most tasteless way possible. They recreated the John F. Kennedy assassination but instead of JFK getting shot, his wife is hit next to him. I.e. the man was missed. Yikes. We can barely believe this got all the way through the company before they decided “yep, let’s publish it.” There was predictable outrage over this one and we can’t blame anyone!
United Colors of Bennetton
This one is horrible for a myriad of reasons. First, it’s joking about addiction like it’s no big deal. “Fashion junkie” or real junkie, it’s all the same thing! Second, the advertisement plays on the stereotype of models all doing coke and pigeonholing them in that way is totally unfair. This was during an era where the thinness of models was the most important thing in fashion so glamorizing drug use was just another crappy thing done by the fashion industry. Sisley likes to push the envelope and that’s clearly what they were doing here.
The Related Companies
This ad had good intentions. According to photographer Steven Klien it was meant to address “today’s issues and social commentaries” surrounding breast feeding. While it takes the stance that breastfeeding is natural and should absolutely be allowed in public, it seems a strange message to send when Equinox is a gym. We get it, they’re equating the commitment to breastfeeding with the commitment to work out but you have to think too hard to figure that out. We’re not quite sure why this was what they chose to show instead of, I don’t know, people working out!