15 Outrageous Business Blunders and PR Disasters
A business blunder is like a worldwide car wreck — everyone slows down just a little bit to watch the whole thing unfold. In the worst cases, lawsuits are settled out of court and people are fired. In the best instances, the public is left scratching their heads, or mocking the company for such a blithe maneuver. Surely we would never do such a thing, so how could they?
Fails and business blunders, and often the accompanying PR disasters, are simply fascinating, so we researched some of the more outrageous occurrences from the last two decades. From shockingly stupid moves to head-scratching campaigns that made us say, “Who approved that?” these 15 colossal failures are some of the most infamous.
Steal My Social Security Number, I Dare You. No, Wait, Not Like That!
During a 2006 ad blitz, LifeLock founder Todd Davis posted his security number on television ads, billboards and websites. He claimed that he was so confident in his security company, that the social security number would be useless to any would-be thief.
Davis then fell victim to at least 13 crimes of identity theft. Worse still, the ads attracted the attention of journalists, who discovered that LifeLock was founded on deceptive practices. Then came the feds, who fined LifeLock in 2010 for $12 million because of its deceptive business practices failing to secure sensitive customer data — you know, the exact opposite of what Davis purported that LifeLock could do.
Also notable: the FTC fined LifeLock $100 million in 2010 and another $100 million in 2015.
JetBlue Puts Passengers Through 11 Hours of Hell on the Tarmac
Imagine being stuck in a cramped airplane, on the tarmac, for up to 10 and-a-half hours — for no good reason. That’s what happened to hundreds of people on 10 JetBlue planes at New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport in February 2007.
Sure, the icy weather and gate congestion caused delays, but an entire airplane filled with JetBlue passengers sat in walking distance of their boarding terminal for nearly 11 hours. The airline, in a colossal screw-up, waited for hours upon hours until it phoned the airport for help. After which, the airport supplied staircases and buses, allowing some passengers to exit within half an hour. Until then, passengers were essentially held hostage by the airline, with crew sometimes opening the hatch for fresh air and passing out free chips, according to the Associated Press. And those bathrooms must have been horrible.
The incident left CEO David Neelman in an embarrassing and apologetic position. When the Times asked why the airline just didn’t call the airport sooner, he said, “That’s a very good question.” Which is corporate-speak for “someone really screwed up.”
Trapped passengers were given full refunds and free round-flight trips. In 2010, the U.S. Transportation Department established a three-hour rule, which states that planes can remain on the tarmac for only three hours before they must return to the terminal.
Kim Kardashian Attempts to Trademark ‘Kimono’
Kim Kardashian angered a whole bunch of people in June 2019 when she tried to trademark the word “kimono” for her shapewear line. The clothes had nothing to do with a kimono, and Kardashian’s attempt at trademarking the word had some people criticizing the reality TV star for appropriating a cultural staple of Japanese wear that dates back to 794 BCE.
Kardashian tweeted an apology on July 1, saying, “I am always listening, learning and growing - I so appreciate the passion and varied perspectives that people bring to me. When I announced the name of my shapewear line, I did so with the best intentions in mind.” She also said she would be changing the name of her upcoming clothing line.
Wells Fargo Continually Vies to be World’s Worst Bank, Succeeds
Do you have a Wells Fargo account? Well, you might have another one, too. In September 2016, it was uncovered that Wells Fargo employees secretly (and illegally) opened an estimated 1.5 million fake accounts to hit sales targets and receive bonuses. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau hit the bank with $185 million in fines. “[A]t Wells Fargo, when we make mistakes, we are open about it, we take responsibility and we take action,” Wells Fargo said in an emailed statement to its employees. CEO John Stumpf announced he would give up the majority of his 2016 salary and $41 million in stock rewards, but then resigned in October. The bank fired around 5,300 employees.
Then, in 2017, that 1.5 million estimate ballooned to 3.5 million fake accounts were discovered. By then, new scandals included forcing 570,000 customers into unneeded auto insurance (which led to about 20,000 people defaulting on their loans and having their cars repossessed), and extending homeowner’s mortgages in order to receive a larger total payment. In 2018, Wells Fargo made a $575 million settlement with attorneys general across all 50 states, while consumers joined in on a $142 million class-action lawsuit.
Wells Fargo continues to face wrath from the public and from Congress. As North Carolina Representative Patrick McHenry said during a 2019 congressional hearing, "Each time a new scandal breaks, Wells Fargo promises to get to the bottom of it. But then a few months later, we hear about another case of dishonest sales practices or gross mismanagement."
Can the bank ever recover from such a mess? Does it deserve to?
Kendall Jenner and Pepsi Heal the World
It’s 2017 and volatile protests against police violence are in full swing. Pepsi took one look at its divided country and, according to many critics, asked, ‘How can we profit off of this?’
Enter Kendall Jenner and the “Live for Now” commercial, possibly one of the most tone-deaf and inadvertently hilarious ads ever produced. The two-minute and thirty-second commercial features Jenner noticing a throng of happy protesters marching by her photoshoot. People are smiling, dancing, playing musical instruments. Jenner is intrigued. She catches the eye of a cello player, who beckons her over. She tears off a blonde wig and joins the protesters — who are all very, very happy — and wanders over to the police line. A woman in a hijab snaps her picture. Jenner carries a can of Pepsi to one of the officers. He drinks it, and the crowd erupts in hugs, high-fives and laughter.
After its debut, many mocked and derided Pepsi for the absurdity of the campaign, while others claimed they had tried to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement for financial gain. Pepsi pulled it within days.
Katy Perry’s Shoes
If you wanted to wear foot puppets, then Katy Perry had you covered. For a little bit. The line, Katy Perry Collections was pulled from stores not long after they were accused of resembling blackface. There were two shoes: Rue Face Slip On Loafers and Ora Face Block Heel Sandal. They had red lips, a triangle nose and blue eyes — a weird, Picasso-like design. The shoes came in several color variations, but the black version bore an uncomfortable similarity with blackface. Perry pulled the shoe line from retailers not long after the controversy.
Part of Gucci’s 2018-2019 Fall/Winter line was a black turtleneck sweater that could roll up to the wearer’s nose. It had a hole for the mouth, and around that mouth was a pair of bright red lips. It looked almost exactly like early 20th century blackface — and the sweater launched in February. Otherwise known as Black History Month. Gucci pulled the sweater — which retailed for $890 — and apologized, but people were incredulous that something that could so blatantly be inferred as racist was made to begin with.
Department of Defense Panics an Entire City
You know what New Yorkers don’t want to see? A low-flying aircraft. But the Department of Defense didn’t get that memo, because in April 2007, the government sent Air Force One and two fighter jets over Manhattan for a photo-op. Some New York City and New Jersey officials were aware, but nobody bothered to tell New York City residents.
One person said about 1,000 people at the New York Mercantile Exchange Building “went into a total panic” and ran out of the building, with similar incidents occurring around the financial district. Officials enjoyed pointing fingers, but no one shouldered the blame. Because who needs government accountability?
BP’s CEO, Tired of Accountability for Ruining Gulf of Mexico, Wants His Life Back
On April 20, 2010, a BP oil rig located in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 workers and causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Deepwater Horizon was an absolute disaster, leaking at least 210 million gallons into the ocean over 87 days, killing scores of fish and wildlife, and having a long-lasting impact on Gulf Coast fishing.
The spill itself was a disaster and a tragedy. BP’s response was a PR nightmare. CEO Tony Hayward, facing the brunt of media scrutiny and general public hostility toward BP, proclaimed, “There’s no one more who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”
The quote pretty much became a meme, and South Park issued a scathing parody of Hayward sarcastically repeating “We’re sorry.” Hayward resigned in July, saying he had been “demonized and vilified” in the U.S.
In 2010, the auto world was a simpler place. Toyota commercials featured flower-clad babies singing the praises of hybrids, the 2010 Tesla Roadster was proving electric cars could be sexy (and crazy expensive), and Volkswagen was in on the lower-emissions action, too. Their 2010 Golf TDI was out in force at the Detroit auto show, highlighting the seemingly endless benefits of "clean diesel."
Except "clean diesel" isn't really a thing. In 2015, the EPA charged Volkswagen with violating the Clean Air Act after a multitude of tests found the company's turbocharged injection engines were intentionally programmed to activate emission controls only during lab tests. Out in the real world, they emitted up to 40 times more emissions. Whoopsie.
Unsurprisingly, people weren't pleased. Volkswagen CEO, Martin Winterkorn resigned. Design heads at VW and Audi were suspended. The company pleaded guilty to criminal charges and shelled out $18.32 billion on recalls.
But what about the 500,000 plus VW customers in the U.S. who now had planet-killing hatchbacks with no resale value? Don't worry. They received $1,000 gift cards plus another $1,000 in trade-in value for a shiny new, non-diesel Volkswagen.
Dove’s Marketing Department Needs More Diversity
In 2017, Dove ran an ad which depicted a black woman transforming into a white woman after using Dove’s products, which many people saw as racist. Some people thought that Dove was implying dark-skin could be “cleaned” and turned white. It was in inference not without historical context, as soap companies did advertise such things in the past.
That same year, Dove came under fire for another ad depicting a black woman on the left, a Latina woman in the middle and a white woman on the right, with “before” and “after” images of scratchy and smooth skin examples in the background. Again, the ad could be seen as using Dove as a method to become whiter, or that dark skin was less preferable than white.
In 2012, the company also produced a bottle of lotion “for normal to dark skin,” which Dove said was a printing error, and should have read “for fair to dark skin.” However, Dove was still selling that bottle in 2017.
Carnival’s Poop Cruise
In 2013, an engine fire knocked out the power on a Carnival cruise ship, leaving it and over 4,200 passengers and crew stranded in the Gulf of Mexico for four days. There was no running water, air conditioning or toilets; when the ship listed, it caused raw sewage to “to spill out of non-functioning toilets, flood across the vessel’s floors and halls and drip down the vessel’s walls,” according to one subsequent lawsuit. The cruise would go down as infamy as the Poop Cruise.
Carnival offered a full refund for the cruise and items purchased on the Poop Cruise, free flights home, travel reimbursements, a credit toward a future cruise and a $500 check. Some people thought that wasn’t enough and sued the cruise line. But those lawsuits were either thrown out in court or their plaintiffs were awarded paltry amounts of money — three received $15,000 each and another 24 received $3,000 or less, according to Cruise Law News. And that’s not factoring in lawyer fees.
Adult Swim Causes a Bomb Scare
In 2007, Cartoon Network wanted to drum up some press for its “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” cartoon show. So the animation company distributed 38 light-up LED signs of ATHF’s Mooninite characters throughout Boston. Which should have been perfectly fine, except we are all really scared about being blown up (and not without reason).
The incident happened January 31, with MBTA passengers calling in to the police to report an electronic device on the highway. The attorney general at the time, Martha Coakley, told reporters that the sign “had a very sinister appearance” and “it had a battery behind it, and wires.”
As Boston Magazine notes, the signs were nothing more than “jimmy-rigged Lite Brites that ran on four D-batteries.” Although the Mooninites did have their middle fingers up.
United Airlines Gives ‘Re-Accommodate’ a Whole New Meaning
It was April 10, 2017, and United Airlines overbooked one of its flights from Chicago by four seats. So it offered vouchers of increasing amounts, up to $1,000, looking for volunteers. When no one responded, an airline employee simply said that they would bump four people at random so their flight could accommodate the more important guests — four of United’s employees.
Three people left without incident. But David Dao didn’t see a reason why he should be forced off the plane that he paid a ticket for. And so Delta called airport security officers to the scene, who savagely ripped Dao from his seat and rendered him unconscious. A video of Dao being dragged up the aisle, with blood dripping down his nose, went viral.
Dao did not speak publicly about the incident for two years, revealing in 2019 that he had no memory of being removed from the plane. He received a concussion, lost two teeth and incurred a broken nose from the incident, according to CNN. United settled with Dao out of court just a few weeks after the incident. Two security officers were fired.
While the whole fiasco was horrific, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz made it even worse. Despite passenger testimonials and video evidence, Munoz claimed that Dao was “disruptive and belligerent” while apologizing “for having to re-accommodate” the passengers.
Ironically, a month prior to the “re-accommodation,” PRWeek had awarded Munoz its Communicator of the Year award. After the incident, the publication published an editorial calling his response “tone deaf,” and said: “It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz.”
Abercrombie Makes Thongs for Children
Writing about this is extremely uncomfortable, so we’re baffled at how anyone actually created this.
In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch released a line of thongs for children with words like “eye candy” and “wink wink” emblazoned on the front. Disgusting, you say? Encouraging the sexualization of small children, you say? Nope, says Abercrombie. In a canned PR response, the clothing company said, “The underwear for young girls was created with the intent to be lighthearted and cute. Any misrepresentation of that is purely in the eye of the beholder.”
That’s right, everyone else is the pervert, not the company that made thongs for 10-year-olds. The thongs were only on shelves for about a month before the company pulled them from shelves. Hopefully they burned them.