Readers Present Picks for Advertising Age's Annals of Marketing Disasters

From Papa John's to Fiji Water, KFC Isn't the First to Screw Up a Promotion

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NEW YORK ( -- KFC blundered big earlier this month with the launch of Kentucky Grilled Chicken. Not only did it introduce a product that seemed to undermine the finger-lickin' flagship, it created a crush via a promotion on "Oprah," where it offered free samples with a coupon download. Not only did people photocopy the coupon and overwhelm stores, but franchisees, stuck with the cost of the free food, didn't all comply. In the end, there were long lines and a lot of consumers left without chicken but with a bad taste for KFC. After giving away some 4 million meals in two days, the company rescinded the offer and issued awkward-to-redeem rain checks.

The promotion was so poorly executed that it stands to rank among some of the more notable goof-ups in marketing memory. Last week, Ad Age set out to name some other such flubs, from New Coke to Kraft's Ready to Roll sweepstakes, and asked readers for their contributions. Here are some nominations readers sent in for Ad Age's Annals of Marketing Disasters.

"Papa John's had a marketing disaster in Ohio last year. They sold large one-topping pizzas for $0.23 in honor of LeBron James after a franchise owner made some negative comments about him. There were lines for hours. They ran out of pizza. Fears of rioting. People seriously skipped work to wait in line for several hours to get a 23-cent pie (idiots). It was a relatively small-scale disaster, but a disaster no less."

-- Gretchen Schneider

"Obviously, since this was TWA, it happened a while back, but at the time it was considered one of the greatest marketing fiascos in history. TWA, then a leader in the airline industry, offered up a promotional campaign to have business executives take their wives with them on business trips. The initial promotion was highly successful. However, TWA decided to write thank- you notes directly to the spouses who accompanied their husbands while traveling. Because the thank-you notes came as a complete surprise to an unknown, yet significant number of spouses regarding their trip, the campaign caused quite a backlash among key customers of the airline and was immediately canceled. The amount of damage to the brand is unknown, but TWA is no longer flying, and my guess is that more than a few divorces resulted from this unique but devastating promotion."

-- David K. Haspel,
Haspel Communications,
Santa Monica, Calif.

"I read with interest your article about marketing disasters. We had one here in Australia just last week. JetStar, the low-cost airline subsidiary of Qantas, is celebrating its fifth anniversary in these parts. They decided to offer a special promotion to members on their database -- their JetMail members. The offer was of 5,000 seats for only 5¢ each. Problem was you simply could not get through to their website.

I've spoken with a dozen other people who could not get through either. Another segment of your customers you really shouldn't be annoying like that is your loyal customers -- they can easily turn.

Some Twitter posts:

  • Maybe Jetstar #jetcrap should realize that this promotion has annoyed more ppl than it has pleased! great move Jetcrap!
  • Big surprise Jetstar #jetcrap servers can't handle the traffic spike.
  • SO disappointed @ Jetstar #jetcrap birthday sale. 5000 seats for 5¢?! in previous yrs they have had overseas deals, e.g. take a friend for $3.
  • And some discussion.

    -- Jeff Gilling,

    "Red Dog [beer] came out in late 1994 with a bang! Red Dog came out swinging with a great name, strong marketing support, very promotionally active on and off premise, and the product was good. I believe Tommy Lee Jones voiced the first generation of radio commercials. Then the product fell off the face of the Earth 1996-ish, never to return to store shelves and bars."

    -- Jay Gadon,
    West Rutland, Vt.

    "What about the recent Tropicana orange juice packaging 'refresh' debacle that by some estimates cost PepsiCo as much as $33 million?"

    -- Marc Williams

    "Fiji water ... when they claimed in their ads that it was better than Cleveland tap water. So the city ran blind taste tests all over town, and ran scientific experiments proving that Cleveland tap was actually better than Fiji. In fact, Fiji water was found to contain traces of arsenic! Oooops. "

    -- Jeremy Ryan

    "The CueCat concept [of a handheld barcode scanner] was a commercial failure. It also received the dubious distinction as one of 'The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time,' according to PC World Magazine. The CueCat's critics said the device was ultimately of little use. Wrote Jeff Salkowski of the Chicago Tribune, 'You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can,' while Debbie Barham of the Evening Standard quipped that the CueCat 'fails to solve a problem which never existed.'"

    --Alex Campbell

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