Ever wondered what it would be like to have unlimited first class airline tickets or how awesome 10 cent beer night would be? Well stop wondering, because the answer is awesome for you, though, not so much for the company. Here is our top five list of terrible marketing fails. From promotions that backfired to straight up terrible campaigns, these marketing fails cost their companies big time.
1. Unlimited Tickets for a Quarter of a Million Dollars, How Could it Fail?
In the 1980s, American Airlines (AA) had a genius idea that would ensure travelers always chose them over other airlines: unlimited flights. Marketed towards the high-end clientele of AA, AAirpass offered unlimited first-class flights for the modest price of $250,000 with the option of paying an additional $150,000 for a companion pass which allowed you to bring along a buddy, a date, a stranger, or anyone really. AA took the phrase “unlimited flights” to the extreme by seriously offering unlimited flights, no questions asked.
You may think that price is remarkably high and for most people it is, but don’t forget the outrageous amounts of green some people have. With no limits, $250,000 for the ability to travel anywhere in the world, as many times as you want until you meet your ultimate demise, probably at some exotic location you flew to, sounds pretty appealing, especially if you have that kind of money. What AA quickly learned was that sometimes you should make assumptions. If you offer a product that is unlimited, you should assume that some people will use it as much as they can and as quickly as they can. This is exactly what some people did. What AA thought would make them a quick profit in the short term, quickly turned into a loss over the long term–probably quicker than they expected, if they even put any thought into it at all.
One traveler loved London so much he traveled there and back 16 times in a month. Talk about getting your money’s worth. That would have cost him around $125,000 if he hadn’t used his AAirpass. Within a month he’d made up half the price of the pass, not to mention the frequent flyer miles he racked up. I wonder where he flew to the following month.
AA originally thought large corporations who flew frequently would use the pass for executives and other top employees. Indeed if AA had put restrictions on the pass maybe it would have worked out this way, but they didn’t count on all the rich folks using it for themselves.
AA has lost millions of dollars on customers who bought the AAirpass early. In fact, they even began investigating customers who frequently used the pass, looking for violations to have an excuse to revoke the pass. Today the pass exists in a different form. You get fixed rates on flights even if you book last minute. AA did try to revitalize the unlimited flights, hiking prices for passes up to as high as $3 million. Now that’s the kind of money only a large corporation would spend.
2. 1.5 Million Red Balloons Go By
In 1986, United Way, a non-profit fundraising organization, decided to hold a huge promotion in Cleveland, OH. The objective: break a world record by setting 1.5 million helium balloons free with the ultimate goal of raising money for charity. An admirable goal, not a great idea. First, releasing 1.5 million of anything into any environment is probably going to have unforeseen consequences. Second, if you are going to release 1.5 million balloons into the air, you should probably not rush it. Delay if the forecast calls for it. They did not delay.
The balloons which had been blown up in the wee hours of the morning on September 27 by 2,500 students and volunteers were held by a giant net. Red balloons, white balloons, blue balloons, small balloons, medium balloons, even great big balloons were all held in this giant net. Local media used the term “balloon mountain” to describe the many balloons.
The weather was cloudy and rainy and due to risk of balloons escaping the net, organizers decided to go ahead and release the balloons in spite of more rain on the way. I suppose after spending hours blowing up 1.5 million balloons with a rare, non-renewable gas, the thought of rain turning it into a giant waste of time and resources was a little too much for organizers to bare. Due to the weather, the balloons didn’t stay airborne for long. Rain pushed the balloons down and eventually they were all over Cleveland and Lake Erie.
The balloons caused trouble in the city, the countryside, and on the lake. In the city, balloons caused problems for motorists by causing car accidents, either by a motorist trying to avoid the balloons or by causing distractions. Outside of Cleveland, the balloons spooked some prized Arabian horses, causing them permanent injury. And worse of all, in Lake Erie, the coast guard were searching for two missing fishermen. Their attempts were hampered by the countless number of balloons. Apparently it’s hard to search the for bobbing heads amongst a sea of balloons. The two fishermen were later found washed ashore having already drowned. Yeah, if you think this just got really dark then you can more than bet United Way of Cleveland was sued by multiple people over their balloons.
After all the balloons had settled, United Way of Cleveland had spent $500,00 on the event, wasted a ton of helium, littered Cleveland and the surrounding area with non-biodegradable plastic balloons, and were sued by multiple people with most cases being settled for undisclosed fees; but releasing 1.5 million balloons did look awesome.
3. Adult Swim’s Guerrilla Marketing Scares the Hell Out of Boston
In 2007, Adult Swim launched a guerilla marketing campaign to promote the movie Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters. The campaign was done on behalf of Adult Swim by the marketing company Interference, Inc. and involved placing devices similar to the children’s toy nightbright in cities around the country. The nightbright-like devices depicted a character from the movie in LED lights. The devices were hand constructed and had revealing circuitry, wiring, and batteries.
Interference Inc. hired two people to place devices around Boston and the surrounding cities Cambridge and Somerville. The devices were placed in areas like train stations, bridges, and tunnels. You can probably already see how this could cause problems.
Someone eventually alerted authorities to one of these “suspicious” devices, and the response was everything from the bomb squad to paramedics and media choppers. Other devices were discovered and received the same response. One part of the interstate was even closed off while the police investigated.
It took five hours into the investigation of the first device before authorities identified the character on the homemade nightbright. While some have described Boston’s response as overblown, the simple fact is that Interference Inc. should have notified local authorities of the campaign. In fact, it was later said that Interference Inc. were telling those who helped set up the devices to keep quiet. It wasn’t until they notified Adult Swim that their parent company Turner Broadcasting Company issued an apology. In the end, Turner was sued and ended up paying $1 million to the City of Boston and another $1 million to Homeland Security, all for a Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. I’m not sure it was worth it.
4. Cleveland Offers Baseball Fans 10 Cent Beers, What Could Go Wrong?
On June 4th, 1974 the Cleveland Indians held a promotion to attract more fans to their game against the Texas Rangers. The promotion: 10 cent beers. Unlimited 10 cent beers to be precise. This is the second marketing fail on this list to take place in Cleveland. It is also the second fail that includes a company offering unlimited numbers of a product. So perhaps offering unlimited products either at low prices or for free is not a good idea. Also, maybe don’t hold promotions in Cleveland.
Cleveland had held 10 cent beer nights before without problems. So we can’t completely blame this bad idea on them. It had worked before, so why wouldn’t it work again? Here is why: the last time the Indians played the Rangers was a week earlier in Texas and a brawl involving the entirety of both teams had broken out. After all was said and done, the Rangers beat the Indians 3 to 0 and a lot of Indian’s fans would be holding a grudge until the next game. When asked if he was worried about the following game in Cleveland, Rangers’ Manager fueled the flames by saying, “They don’t have enough fans there to worry about.” He would soon discover how wrong he was.
While this probably had promoters jumping up and down with glee, the first red flag of the night was that twice the number of expected attendees showed up for the game. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when you can come up with money for 30 beers just by cleaning out your couch cushions or car floorboards. The second red flag was the multiple people who ran on field and either mooned the crowd, flashed the crowd, or ran buck naked throughout the outfield.
After dozens of other red flags that included firecrackers being thrown into the Rangers’ dugout and one Rangers’ player being hit with an empty gallon jug of Thunderbird — I had to look that one up, it’s wine; a gallon of wine! — 10 cent beer night finally reached it’s final act. In the 9th inning a drunken fan rushed the field and tried to take a Rangers’ player’s ball cap, the player tried to get it back and tripped to the ground. Rangers’ team manager thought his player had been attacked. Because of this, the entire Rangers team, some armed with bats, rushed the field to the aid of their fallen teammate.
Seeing this, drunken fans started rushing the field armed with knives, chains, and makeshift weapons from whatever they could tear free from stadium seating. The Rangers were vastly outnumbered and encircled by the drunken Clevelanders. Perhaps due to the sanctity of baseball, the Cleveland Indians rushed to the aid of the Texas Rangers, fighting off their own fans to protect the opposing team. The field was flooded with people, and a full scale riot erupted.
Both baseball teams were eventually able to get to safety; however, not without some minor injuries. The game was forfeited to the Rangers, and the Cleveland swat team was called in and dispersed the crowd with tear gas. That night everyone learned that America’s favorite pastime is actually cheap beer. Cleveland Indian promoters learned to limit 10 cent beers to two per person as they had another 10 cent beer night the following month, this time with four times the security.
5. Red Lobster Underestimates America’s Hunger for Snow Crab
In 2003, Red Lobster decided Americans weren’t getting enough snow crab. They decided to remedy this by offering all you can eat, unlimited snow crab–a bold move. If you offer endless food, especially snow crab, you better be able to deliver. And deliver they did, at great expense.
There were two problems with Red Lobster’s endless snow crab promotion. First, like we’ve seen before, they underestimated how many people would actually stuff their face with snow crab. It is delicious, but after two helpings of the white, salty sea treat, you’d think you’d be full of the stuff. That’s what Reb Lobster thought. They thought wrong. People who went back for thirds and the brave few who had fourths really started to put a dent in Red Lobsters promotion. This was because of the second problem with the promotion: timing.
Red Lobster picked the absolute worst time to throw this promotion. The U.S. government issued quotas for crab, limiting the number of crabs fishermen can catch. When the quotas are high, more crabs can be caught. When quotas are low, fewer crabs can be caught. Fewer crabs means higher prices. 2003 had some of the lowest quotas for crab, resulting in high prices. To compensate for this, some Red Lobster managers raised the all you can eat crab price from $20 to $25 but it still wasn’t enough to combat customers who ate several pounds of legs per sitting.
Red Lobster reported a loss in profits during the time the seven week promotion ran, ultimately resulting in around a $3 million loss. The president of Red Lobster resigned shortly after, although the snow crab fiasco was never confirmed to be the reason why. This is just another lesson learned. If you offer a promotion you should assume customers will take maximum advantage of it.
Learn From These Marketing Fails
There is one thing these marketing and promotional blunders have in common. If you get down to the bottom of it, they simply weren’t completely thought out. Hey, could a flyer actually use these unlimited, first class flights to live in the sky, going from city to city eating and sleeping on planes? Hey, is it possible 1.5 million plastic balloons could at the very least be dangerous to the environment and at the very most cause actual problems for other people? Hey, should we notify some officials about placing strange, homemade electronic devices around the city without permits? Hey, could offering cheap, unlimited beer at a sporting event fans are passionate about cause problems? Or hey, what if people don’t stop eating these crab legs? These questions either weren’t asked or they were and the answer was, “no one will do that,” or “that won’t matter.”
It’s called covering your butt, and it’s something these companies learned the hard way. Each of these companies could have easily covered their butts by having limitations in their promotions or by notifying the proper officials of what they were doing, except the balloon thing. There’s no way to cover your butt when you release 1.5 million of anything, anywhere.