25 Major Company Screwups

From left-handed undies to the Pontiac Aztek, some products invoke only one question: What were they thinking? The company screwups below aren’t just limited to WTF-caliber product ideas. These companies let rats infest their premises, made a customer pee in a bag, and held a fundraiser in a place best reserved for Mafia deals. Read more to see how bad it gets.

25. Left-Handed Undies

Image: Gillian/Flickr

Apparently some major research was done in regards to the maneuvers that lefties and righties have to take to fish their junk out of its cotton prison in order to answer nature’s call. One such research article talks about matters of degrees and a high level of difficulty and embarrassment. These newly designed men’s shorts purport to do away with that. Their new horizontal flap makes finding your schlong with your left hand so much easier. Gents living in the UK will never be confused about where it is or how they are supposed to get it ever again.

24. The Baby Shaker App

The world is full of classy things. This is not one of them. Whatever you think even the loudest snot-nosed little tykes, there is no excuse for this travesty of an iPhone app. It depicts various babies and plays crying sounds. When you shake your iPhone hard, the baby dies. It’s perfect for creepy sorts intent on pediatric homicide.

Apple wised up and pulled the app after CNET and other sites sunk their hooks into the story. Sadly, we can’t say we are terribly surprised that this one made it past the gate, when numerous tasteless apps, like one that tracks your girlfriend’s menstrual cycles, preceded it. It is only a matter of time before someone debuts an app where you get to drown kittens or murder Jews or….wait. There’s an app for those. Quick, someone make an app that lets you virtually murder makers of shitty apps. It’s a win-win idea!

23. Gap’s No-Go Logo

Last year, Gap execs weren’t happy with their logo, so they threw millions of dollars into a campaign to change it. This included the time, effort and money funneled into the banal, yet Herculean task of changing everything that bore the Gap logo.

If you put all that work into designing something, you better make damn sure that folks will like it, or that it will at least not damage your valuable brand image. Unfortunately for Gap, people hated the new logo, letting the company know via a social media coup. So Gap went back to basics, throwing even more time, energy and money into the gaping maw of this colossal mistake to change the logo back to what it was previously. Nowadays, all is well that ends well, except for the loss of a fat chunk of corporate change on something that didn’t ever need to happen.

22. The Pontiac Aztek

The Pontiac Aztek was designed with good intentions, but it ended up more closely resembling the Homer Mobile from the Simpsons than something people wanted to drive. Unlike other SUVs of the time, it could carry a 4′ by 8′ sheet of plywood, via seats that flattened down (though its tailgate never sat on a straight line horizontally with the interior when open). In a nod to its younger prospective owners, its center console featured a removable cooler, tent/mattress combo and built-in air compressor. It also boasted a backpack built into the space behind the driver’s seat. There were also numerous rack and storage space for skis, skates and any other sort of outdoorsy toys a hip young driver might care to bring along. For all these things, the Aztek was a sales pariah. Forecasts were for 75,000 a year. At the Aztek’s peak, it sold 27,793. In its last year, 2007, it sold a whopping 25. And so the “D’oh”-mobile passed into obscurity.

21. Stripper Fundraiser

Image source

We all have seen how much the notion of family values permeates the right wing culture. Indeed, it’s an essential part of the brand. Bearing that in mind, why would former Chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele elect to hold an event at a BDSM-themed club with lesbian dancers? Even if Steele and his friends are secretly freaky in the sack, this isn’t the sort of thing their constituents—or the general public—wants to know about. Lesbian BDSM and conservative family values go together like PB&J, right? Big brand misfire, men.

20. New Coke

In yet another case of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Coca-Cola’s introduction of New Coke in the mid-1980s was heralded initially as a good move. However, it ended badly. Sales dropped, PR went through the floor, and the soda company was forced to reinstate its original flavor.

Despite an initial boost of sales in the Northeast, where it was originally released in New York City, Coke’s home in the South was less than kind. The Rebs called out the execs at Coke by saying that Atlanta-based Coke had “surrendered” to the corporate Yankees by changing a time-tested thing and as American as Ma’s apple pie and grits. People in the South were genuinely broken about the loss of something they thought of as theirs. Dissent spread from there. Barely three months after the unveiling of New Coke, Old Coke—err, Coke Classic–was brought back, and not a moment too soon. Sales surged. Now New Coke is but a fading memory.

19. Snot Beer

Image: Seth Anderson/Flickr

If there’s one rule of thumb for home brewers, it’s this. Do not cut corners. Sadly, Schlitz Brewery—formerly the King of Beers until competitor Budweiser took over the top spot and picked up the phrase as their slogan–learned this to their detriment.

When other folks came in and tried to edge Schlitz out of the top spot, head man Robert Uihlein thought he could switch things up to make a cheaper, much tastier beer. Apparently the man forgot his chemistry, to say nothing of what goes into a quality beer. Though his newest beer was lighter and cheaper than ever, there were a couple of problems. After a short amount of time, the beer starting tasting more like something you’d find in a cow pasture. After a bit more time passed, the constituent parts tended to break apart, leaving a slick mess that unpleasantly resembled snot. If you thought getting a booger-flavored jellybean from Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Beans was bad, how would you like a whole can of the stuff?

18. Ad Campaigns are Murder

Image: Anorak.co.uk

Welsh newlyweds Ben and Catherine Mullany were on the last day of their honeymoon on Antigue when they were murdered during what is believed to have been a botched robbery. As tragic as that is, someone from Ohio-based satellite TV subscription list MyDishBiz apparently got a hold of a picture of the happy couple prior to their death. This person then slapped a false testimonial under the picture, basically saying how the couple did business with this company and are stoked as a bear with a pot of honey about it. Obviously, the Mullanys were not really MyDish users. The company vowed to “find whoever did it.” Hopefully they will also institute quality- and taste control in their organization.

17. Della

Image: Dell via TheFriskyDella, you’d think such ‘50s hogwash was true. Della created special computers that fit inside a woman’s purse. No, these weren’t those complicated and man-oriented iPad thingies, these were pastel-colored netbooks just for females. Della even had a special website with a “tech tips” section that talked about all the things your average woman could do online with her new computer. These included looking for recipes (and organizing them), finding ways to please her man, or how she could use her mini computer to keep tabs on her exercise routine and diet. The Della line went into hysterics and dropped off when its niche audience one, most likely Zsa Zsa Gabor, didn’t bite.

16. Free KFC

Do you like free food? So do lots of other folks. Naturally, that they jumped at the chance when Oprah herself ponied up with free nosh from KFC via her latest Harpo Hookup. The way said hook up worked is average nobodies could achieve their dreams while Oprah flexed her considerable celebrity muscles. Problem is, nobody told KFC. Lots of folks printed out the coupon for a free meal, only to have the Colonel bitchslap them when they showed up to redeem it.

15. Southwest v. Kevin Smith

Best known for his role along sidekick Jason Mewes as a guy who doesn’t say a whole lot, Kevin Smith directed and/or starred in such notable movies as Clerks, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Mall Rats, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Love him or hate him, you have to feel bad for the guy about his SNAFU with Southwest.

Long have airlines had a “fat person” policy. If a passenger of a certain size can’t lower the arm rest next to them, ‘infringing’ on another seat, it somehow makes their seat partner uncomfortable. Smith had already paid for his ticket, but decided to take an earlier flight from the one he had bought two tickets for originally. After he was seated, Southwest kicked him off the plane like he was a leper. They tried to smooth things over with a $100 voucher and an apology, but the damage was already done. Smith, to boot, made sure everyone knew about it.

14. Cocaine Drink

Most of us know that at one point Coca Cola was used as a medicinal supplement, and did actually contain cocaine. The misnamed “Cocaine Drink” didn’t, but some impressionable buyers, thinking that it could get them high, snapped it up like it was going out of style nonetheless.

When the FDA caught wind of it, they mother-henned the gullible public by lashing out at Redux Beverages for marketing their super-caffeinated energy drink as a “dietary supplement and street drug alternative”. With this logic, espresso should be banned too, but we won’t go there. When the FDA said jump, Redux asked how high by relabeling its drink as No Name. Later on, they 86ed that idea and just slapped a common sense warning label on the side. It was something to the effect of, “This is an energy drink. If you think it’s actually a drug substitute, or that it has cocaine in it, you are an idiot.” We are inclined to agree.

13. Burger King’s “Where’s Herb?” Ads

The McDLT and “Where’s the beef?” were hallmarks of fast food burgers in the ’80s. Burger King, floundering after a previous marketing disaster, thought long and hard about a new campaign that would refresh their image and bring back customers. The “Where’s Herb?” campaign was born out of BK’s need to revitalize.

The premise was simple. Some guy named Herb had never had a Burger King burger in his life. It was the goal of BK’s customers to try and find him, a bit like a real-world, processed-foods version of Waldo.

Another gimmick was hatched by the firm working with BK where customers would say “I’m not Herb” in order to get a free Whopper. Conversely, folks named Herb, possibly in a nod to George Lucas, were instructed to say, “I’m not the Herb you’re looking for.”

When Herb was revealed to the world during Superbowl XX in 1986, even though the person who spotted him at a BK store would go on to win $500,000, the campaign’s popularity went the way of the McRib. (Personally, we think the King, as creepy as he is, is the best mascot/marketing ploy in a good long while.)

12. Rats at KFC

A New York-based KFC/Taco Bell (both owned by Yum! Brands, Inc.) restaurant was shut down in 2007 when a camera spied literally hordes of rats (sleek and well-fed as you might expect New York rats to be) cruising around the place like they owned it. You’ve probably seen Ratatouille, but this was a bit much. Not exactly good advertising for the hygienic standards of your food. It also begs the question, how did this branch of KFC/Taco Bell let the infestation get so bad in the first place?

11. Hasbro’s Easy Bake Oven

Image: CPSC

If your budding Alton Brown or Julia Child is too young to use a real oven, Hasbro’s garishly colored box, now with 40% less lead, looked like a playful alternative. Older versions (Kenner, then Hasbro’s models) featured light bulbs as a heat source. But Hasbro’s latest model, circa 2007, featured a real heating element and stovetop warmer. When you think about kids’ surreal abilities to put things in their mouths and/or get their fingers stuck places, the subsequent recall was pretty much waiting to happen. Despite the EBO’s smaller size (compared to a real oven), kids were still managing to get their fingers stuck in the door. This begs the question, who thought the revision was a good idea? The original ovens were heated with a lamp, and had a push-through design, rather than a frontloading door. Accidents involving those earlier Easy-Bake Ovens were few and far between. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

10. Tiger Woods

Image: Keith Allison/Flickr

Tiger had a great thing going. Not only was he a fantastic golfer, but he was also one of the best–if not the best—African-American golfer in the history of the PGA.

That’s nothing to thumb your nose at, but in 2009, Tiger did just that. Tabloids shared the fact that Tiger’s balls were on the loose in more than one way, including with porn star Veronica Siwik-Daniels. As a result, both his marriage and his career were pummeled by a nine-iron. He lost most of his sponsorships, just about all of his pride, and a whole bunch of golf tournaments. Indeed, he hasn’t had a single win since his public shaming. The Tiger Woods brand is in tall grass; we’ll see if it ever comes back.

9. ET Goes Trick or Treating

At least that may have been the idea behind this misguided attempt at Halloween costuming. It comes with an orange prison-style jumpsuit emblazoned with the words “Illegal Alien,” an alien mask and a plastic ‘green card.’

Offensive? Considering the outcry from one local Hispanic community, we would say so. Some retailers see it as a joke, and try to defend the costume by saying that the green card makes the ‘alien’ legal, while opponents say that it plays to stereotypes (however much of a stretch this is, and for those who have seen District 9, it isn’t really). The right wing and people who are for stricter immigration laws say that political correctness is to blame and that’s all much ado about nothing.

The immigration issue is a hotly contested matter with lots of emotional baggage on both sides. Whatever your thoughts about it, the debate has bigger fish to fry than some silly costume most people will wear once then never see it again. Get over yourselves and work on what’s important.

8. Smart Choices

If food labeling program Smart Choices could have a demotivational poster made for it, it might show a hodgepodge mosaic of everything from bagels to pies, pizza, sugary kids’ cereal, ice cream bars – in short, lots of stuff that tastes good, but is either bad for you or has no nutritional value whatsoever. Below this would be the words, Smart ChoicesTM – You’re Making Them Wrong.

You see, between 2008 and 2009, a collection of fourteen major food companies, including Kellogg, ConAgra, Nestle, Kraft, and Unilever (behind everything from Dove bath soap to Hellmann’s Mayonnaise) all put $1.47 million into an ad initiative in order to get people to eat healthy, or rather to believe that their products were healthier than they used to be, prior to having that oh-so-reassuring label slapped onto the box. In reality, a Smart Choices label on your product only works if the product has some inherent worth beyond filling your belly or sating your taste buds.

More than any redeeming qualities that the products themselves had, the amount of money paid was directly proportionate to the reassurances that that company’s food was better for you. Naturally, Keystone (the non-profit organization that brought Smart Choices into being) denied that the presence of more money made a difference in which company got which endorsement.

7. Best Buy’s Secret Site

Ordinarily, Best Buy will price match the rates of their competitors, like Target or Wal-Mart, but once upon a time, they also competed with themselves. They did so by willfully misleading customers with two different store websites.

As a customer, you’d find a sweet deal on whatever technological doodad du jour that you fancy. The store’s website would say it’s on sale for, say, $59.99. You’d go to the store and ask after the sale item, only to have one of their Blue Shirts (like Star Trek’s red shirts, and about as expendable) pull up what looks like Best Buy’s website. This other website would say the sale ended between the time you left your house and arrived at the store. As a result, you’d look like a total rube. But it wouldn’t your fault. Best Buy ran a super-secret intranet site where they have a private website with different prices and availability lists so they could tell you any old story they please. They stopped just short of renaming themselves Best Swindle.

6. Exploding Self-Indulgence

Image: Corey Balazowich/Flickr

When one is at his or her most vulnerable – naked, wet and alone in the bath – it isn’t exactly a time to reasonably expect exploding bathing accouterments. These sudsy IEDs did just that.

Marketed in toy stores and numerous bath and body stores/departments as Bath Bombs, this hardpacked assortment of oils and essences were supposed to effervesce when exposed to water (like in your bath), causing a soothing, bubbly feeling as the ingredients released. Unfortunately, they had a tendency to injure people who had not yet even had the chance to slip and fall in the tub like normal folks. These balls, which gashed one person’s face, were imported from China, perhaps in a misplaced case of a fireworks celebration.

Needless to say, more than 500,000 of the things were recalled, at which point importer JAKKS Pacific punched a few holes in the caps of the balls, letting them depressurize and preventing bathtub projectiles. Soap and a loofah will do just fine, thank you very much.

5. SkyWest’s Pee Problem

Remember being a kid and going on vacation with your folks? You’d leave town; as you got beyond the city limits, you realized you had to go ‘wee wee.’ Of course, mom and dad refused to turn around, and then you had to hold it for hours until they were willing to pull over at a rest stop.

Thank goodness modern airlines don’t have the same problem. Well, most of them don’t. One unfortunate SkyWest flight featured a single bathroom—that wasn’t working. The captain, rather than informing people about it, or making sure other arrangements could be made before taking off, turned on the ‘Fasten Seatbelt’ sign. The stewardess then informed one poor fellow that he couldn’t leave his seat because the bathroom was broken and that could he please use an airsick bag instead? We don’t know about the guy, but this made SkyWest look all wet. Do you smell ammonia?

4. Mars Turning Down E.T.

Hindsight is ever 20/20. Mars learned this to their detriment when, in 1982, they turned down a product placement deal that would have had Spielberg’s squat little animatronic explorer scarfing M&Ms.

Their loss was Hershey’s gain
, however, as the maker of Reese’s Pieces cleaned up in a glorious flood of chocolate, peanut butter, and yellow and orange food dye. There are ideas about why Mars declined – maybe they thought the movie would tank (and their sales along with it) or maybe they just did not approve of the notion of a homesick alien befriending an outcast kid.

While Hershey didn’t pay Amblin Entertainment for the right, they did agree to a tie-in deal where they promoted the film to the tune of $1 million. In turn, they were given carte blanch to use the little alien in their own advertising.

As anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the last 29 years knows, ET went on to do very well at the box office, and Hershey’s rode its coattails. Mars has since tried to recapture that success with their animatronic M&Ms – sassy Green, slow-witted Yellow and snarky Red. Hasn’t quite measured up, though.

3. Jay-Z’s Canine Coats

Who let the dogs out? Apparently, Jay Z and Diddy did it. Under Jay Z’s Rocawear line and Diddy’s Sean Jean line, they marketed their Raccoon Dog fur coats as faux rabbit fur, among other materials. When confronted with the truth of the matter, they insisted they had no idea that their fur coats (since recalled) were made from the fur of the endangered Asian dog.

The dog dirt went through a rep first. Barring some hugely embarrassing incident, the gents can’t be bothered to handle the day-to-day, it seems. Their ignorance of the ups and downs of their own venture led them to look like male rapper versions of Cruella DeVil. That’s not classy, boys.

2. Decca Records Refusing the Beatles

“All you need is love. And to have your head examined.” We wonder if anyone thought that of the execs at Decca Records after The Beatles became superstars.

In 1962, the Fab Four made an apparent dog’s breakfast of their audition and subsequently signed on with Parlophone Records, then later Capitol and Apple following their first eight albums with Parlophone (a subsidiary of EMI). The rest, as they say, is history. Of course, Decca Studios went on to make history with The Moody Blues, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac and others, but only one studio can claim to be the originator of John, Paul, George and Ringo, and that isn’t you, Decca. More’s the pity.

1. BP Oil Spill

The Gulf of Mexico will feel the aftereffects of the Deep Horizon incident for years to come. BP is a case study in how you should never overestimate your own abilities—or competence, in this case. BP is an expert in undersea exploration as it relates to locating natural gas and oil deposits. Part of its job is to work out ¬safe and, if possible, environmentally friendly procedures to get at those resources. Otherwise it doesn’t pump up the oil that greases its corporate wheels.

Unfortunately for BP, the country, and the Gulf ecosystem, the oil giant’s claims towards about how on the ball they were, and how much grease wouldn’t hit the fan if the worst should happen, didn’t pan out. BP’s claims that its pipes and wells could withstand an accident 6-10 times the power of the Deep Horizon explosion were fine and well; so much for backing them up. BP’s epic disaster and subsequent PR fail proved that the company’s oil operations aren’t the only things producing hot air.

Written by Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.