Blogs & Comment

Jeff Beer: Why are advertisers so full of apologies lately?

Marketing mea culpa.

Canadians know how to say sorry. It’s one of our cultural cliches that a Canadian will apologize if you bump into them. “Sorry” and “excuse me” are virtually interchangeable here.  It’s also a word we’ve been hearing a lot from marketers lately.

In the last month, Ford, McDonald’s, Hyundai, PepsiCo and JC Penney—the latter two on the same day— have all issued their own mea culpas for a variety of transgressions.


First it was Ford apologizing for a set of ads from agency JWT India depicting women gagged and bound in the back of a Ford car. At first the agency said it was a never-approved fake ad that was never supposed to see the light of day—until it was revealed that agency execs and Ford approved it to be submitted to a local ad awards show. Apologies ensued and the employees who created it quickly went from award nominations to pink slips.

Then in early April, McDonald’s and Boston-based agency Arnold were forced to apologize over a subway ad that looked a bit too close to mental health and law services posters for some people’s comfort. Including the fast-feeder itself, who denied approving the ads.

Next up was Hyundai, who pulled and apologized for an ad called “Pipe Job” that showed a guy whose suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning was foiled thanks to the car’s clean emissions. The carmaker’s North American division was quick to toss its European counterpart under the bus, releasing a statement, “We at Hyundai Motor America are shocked and saddened by the depiction of a suicide attempt in an inappropriate European video featuring a Hyundai. Suicide merits thoughtful discussion, not this type of treatment.”

Image from "Pipe Job."

Image from “Pipe Job.”

And now this week, PepsiCo and JC Penney offered up two very different apologies. PepsiCo was forced to pull a Mountain Dew ad created by rapper Tyler the Creator after complaints were made that it made light of violence against women, while JC Penney released a new ad effectively begging its customers to come back after changes to the store were not well-received.

What does it all this sorrying mean? On one hand it’s great that brands are in a way embracing transparency and responsibility, but in a world of memes, viral hits and HURRYUPANDGIVEMESOMETHIGNNEWANDAWESOME, marketers are pushing the envelope in many ways, including taste.

Certainly Hyundai must be scratching its head on why its ad got so much attention while similar suicide-y car spots—like this and this—have gone largely ignored. The Indian Ford ads were clearly done on purpose. And PepsiCo? Clearly controversy was planned all along as soon as they brought in Tyler the Creator, who’s has courted plenty of it over the last few years.

The competition to get your attention (and for industry accolades) has never been tougher and marketers are clambering to create the next Old Spice guy or Most Interesting Man. The result will be better, higher quality advertising—just expect a whole lot more apologies along with it.