Video Content

15 Controversial Commercials of All Time (2024 Updated)

Laura Chaves
April 8, 2024

When was the last time you forgot a controversial ad? Love them or hate them; they stick in your mind like glue. That means your brand gets remembered long after the commercial is over.

Controversial commercials have a knack for going viral faster than you can say “clickbait.” They get shared, discussed, and dissected on social media, giving your brand-wide exposure to audiences.

Here are some of the most controversial ads that have gone viral, sparked meaningful dialogue, and captivated audiences in ways that traditional advertising simply can’t.


    Top 15 of the Most Controversial Advertisements Ever

    1. General Motors’ “Robot Suicide” Commercial

    In 2007, General Motors found itself embroiled in controversy following the airing of its Super Bowl ad. The TV commercial featured a line robot hurling itself off a bridge after being terminated by the car manufacturer for failing to fulfill its duties.

    While the commercial highlighted GM’s dedication to quality, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention criticized it, stating that it conveyed a dangerous and wrong message.

    In response to the backlash, General Motors swiftly withdrew the ad from circulation just five days after its initial airing.

    In need of video? Get a quick estimate
    Find the right type of video to meet your marketing goals and get an instant estimation on how much it would cost to produce it.
    Get pricing

    2. PETA’s “Last Longer” Commercial

    The nonprofit organization PETA has a reputation for pushing boundaries with its advertisements, and its 2016 Super Bowl commercial certainly made waves. The NSFW (Not Safe For Work) ad depicted two couples engaged in sexual activity, with one couple identified as meat eaters and the other as vegans.

    The premise of the commercial was to suggest that individuals who abstain from eating meat have longer-lasting sexual encounters, a claim not supported by scientific evidence. However, ad executives deemed the controversial commercial too explicit for television and ultimately banned its airing.

    3. Love’s Baby Soft “Innocence Is Sexier Than You Think.”

    The ad begins with the statement, “There’s only one person nobody can resist, and that’s a baby,” accompanied by a woman licking a lollipop.

    The narrator then proceeds to describe the baby growing up to be “very sexy,” which is very creepy.

    They sell products like lotion, baby powder, mist, and foaming baths.

    4. Holiday Inn’s “Bob Johnson” Superbowl Commercial

    In this commercial, Holiday Inn compares billion-dollar hotel renovations and a scenario at a class reunion. The scene depicts a tall, blonde transgender woman catching the attention of her peers, with the narrator remarking, “It’s amazing the changes you can make for a few thousand dollars.”

    As one of the male classmates realizes the woman’s identity as “Bob Johnson,” he visibly shudders.

    The Super Bowl commercial elicited mixed reactions from the LGBTQ+ community. While some appreciated the attempt to showcase inclusivity, others found the portrayal of transgender individuals as objects of shock or ridicule offensive.

    Due to the controversy and backlash it generated, the commercial was eventually pulled from circulation by Holiday Inn.

    5. Dove’s “Real Beauty” Facebook Ad

    Dove’s “Real Beauty” Facebook ad sparked outrage when it appeared on social media timelines. The ad featured a sequence where a Black woman lifted her shirt, and within three seconds, she transformed into a white woman. Subsequently, when the white woman lifted her shirt, she transformed into a Latin woman.

    Many viewers were left puzzled by the ad’s message about the cosmetics company, with some interpreting it as racially insensitive or even racist [1].

    The confusion and backlash prompted Dove to issue an apology for the controversy surrounding the Facebook post. The company released a statement and apologized for any offense caused by the ad’s imagery.

    6. SalesGenie’s “Talking Pandas”

    Sales Genie’s animated ad stirred up controversy. It featured talking pandas with exaggerated Asian accents attempting to save their bamboo furniture shack from closure. However, the ad was met with widespread criticism, with viewers labeling it offensive and racist.

    In response to the outcry, the company’s chairman, Vinod Gupta, who had penned the controversial commercial himself, took swift action. Recognizing the ad’s offensive nature, Gupta decided to pull it from the airwaves.

    7. Coinbase QR Code Commercial

    In 2022, a cryptocurrency advertisement was dubbed one of the most “annoying” and controversial Super Bowl commercials. The ad featured a simple concept: a color-changing QR code slowly traversing a black screen.

    When scanned, the QR code directed viewers to the Coinbase website, where they were greeted with the message: “Less talk, more Bitcoin.”

    8. Pot Noodle’s “The Horn” Commercial UK

    In 2005, a noodle company gained notoriety for its controversial commercials, with the “Horn” ad being the final straw for many disapproving viewers in the UK.

    The ad depicted a man walking into a social gathering with a horn concealed in his pants, resulting in humorous events. Allegedly, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) got the ad banned following public outcry.

    9. Popchips and Ashton Kutcher’s “Dating Video” Commercial

    Supposedly, dating and chips go hand in hand, so Popchips thought it would be fitting for Ashton Kutcher to portray various dating candidates in their ad campaign.

    However, among the characters Kutcher played was an Indian man named Raj, which sparked a wave of disapproval from viewers. Many perceived the portrayal as racist, leading to widespread criticism of the ad. Eventually, the ad was pulled from circulation.

    10. “Felicia the Goat” Commercials

    Who would have thought that a “hip-hop” goat named Felicia would become the center of one of the most offensive commercials ever made?

    In the three-part series, the goat engages in a series of controversial scenes, including fighting with a server, pull covered by a police officer, and being placed in a police lineup consisting solely of Black suspects.

    Despite Tyler’s assertion that the commercials were not racist, the company sparked controversies and social media backlash.

    11. Pepsi’s “Global Message of Unity”

    Yes, it’s the infamous Pepsi commercial. Kendall Jenner handing someone a soda during a protest for justice, police brutality, and rights isn’t exactly the best way to promote unity. Pepsi swiftly removed the commercial after facing significant criticism [2].

    Their “Live for Now” advertising campaign, which lasted a mere 24 hours before being pulled, featured a two-and-a-half-minute ad depicting a diverse group of young people protesting about police officers and everything… something ambiguous.

    Given the context of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement at the time, it’s not difficult to guess what Pepsi was trying to portray. In response to the outcry, Pepsi promptly yanked the ad featuring Kendall Jenner and apologized.

    12. Carl’s Jr. “All Natural Burger”

    Some might argue that Carl’s Jr. had a fixation on sexism and toxic masculinity in their commercials.

    In a 2015 ad, a model strolls through a farmer’s market completely naked, with strategically placed items covering certain areas of her beach-body-ready figure.

    The ad even delivered the punchline, “She’s not the only one all-natural,” as the company introduced its new burger.

    13. Bristol Dry Gin’s “Lootin’ Shootin'” UK Ad

    A gin brand in the UK controversially decided to market its alcohol through protests and riots.

    Although it wasn’t a commercial, their tweet stated, “When the shooting starts, the looting starts. Voted No. 1 gin by rioters for its complex botanical mix and high flammability.”

    14. Burger King – Women Belong in the Kitchen

    It seems like Burger King forgot how Twitter works because, in 2021, Burger King posted a tweet stating, “Women belong in the kitchen.”

    Why would Burger King post something so blatantly misogynistic? Upon reading the attached replies, users discovered that the initial tweet was intended to draw attention to the fact that only 20% of chefs are women. The Burger King commercial highlights the need for more opportunities for women to pursue culinary careers.

    Unfortunately, Burger King failed to recognize that most Twitter users scroll through their feeds rather than delving into content deeply. As a result, thousands of users saw Burger King endorsing sexism instead of promoting equality. Not a great video marketing strategy, BK!

    15. Nivea – White is Purity

    Sometimes, you encounter a controversial ad campaign and wonder, “How did they not realize how bad this sounds?”

    In 2017, German skincare brand NIVEA faced swift criticism when it uploaded its new social media advertising campaign. Users quickly pointed out that the slogan “white is purity” could be interpreted in a problematic way [3].

    The ad was intended to promote NIVEA’s invisible deodorant, presumably highlighting that the product wouldn’t leave stains on white clothing. However, many consumers understandably didn’t see it that way.

    It’s unclear how no one at NIVEA noticed the racial undertones in this commercial, but they promptly acknowledged their mistake and launched into damage control mode.

    After the company issued an apology, NIVEA attempted to salvage the situation by adding a section on “inclusivity” to its core values. However, some viewed this as a disingenuous attempt to quell the public backlash.

    In need of video? Get a quick estimate
    Find the right type of video to meet your marketing goals and get an instant estimation on how much it would cost to produce it.
    Get pricing

    What Makes An Advertising Campaign Controversial?

    1. Sensitive Topics: Campaigns that touch on sensitive or taboo subjects, such as religion, politics, or social issues, are more likely to spark controversies. These topics can evoke strong emotions and opinions from audiences.
    2. Offensive Content: Advertising that contains offensive or inappropriate content, such as racism, sexism, or discrimination, is highly likely to provoke backlash from consumers and the public.
    3. Shock Value: Some advertisers intentionally use shock tactics to grab attention and generate buzz. However, if these tactics are perceived as gratuitous or insensitive, they can backfire and lead to controversies.
    4. Misinterpretation: Sometimes, advertisers intend one message with their campaign, but the audience interprets it differently. This can occur due to ambiguity, cultural differences, or unintended connotations.
    5. Cultural Insensitivity: Campaigns that lack cultural sensitivity or fail to consider their audience’s diverse backgrounds and perspectives can cause offense and debate.
    6. Ethical Concerns: Advertising that raises ethical concerns or challenges societal norms may attract debate. This could include campaigns that glamorize harmful behavior or promote unrealistic beauty standards.
    7. Lack of Transparency: An advertising campaign perceived as deceptive or misleading can lead to backlash. Consumers expect honesty and transparency from brands.

    Do Controversial Ad Campaigns Actually Work?

    Controversial ad campaigns often attract attention, generate buzz, increase brand visibility, and raise awareness. In some cases, the controversies surrounding an ad can spark mixed reviews and debates, keeping the brand in people’s minds.

    Controversial campaigns may appeal to a target audience that appreciates edgy or provocative content. However, the success of a controversial ad ultimately depends on how it resonates with the audience and whether it aligns with the brand’s values and image.

    While some controversial campaigns may achieve their intended goals, others can backfire and damage their reputation if perceived as offensive, insensitive, or in poor taste.

    Therefore, advertisers must carefully weigh the potential benefits and risks of creating a controversial campaign and ensure it effectively communicates the intended message without alienating or offending their audience.


    What is the purpose of controversial ads?

    Controversial ads serve various purposes, including grabbing attention, sparking discussions, and generating buzz for the brand’s products. They often aim to stand out in a crowded advertising landscape by taking a bold stance or addressing provocative topics.

    However, they can also risk alienating or offending certain audience segments, leading to backlash and negative publicity.

    What types of advertisements can be offensive?

    Advertisements can be offensive when they contain insensitive, discriminatory, or culturally inappropriate content.

    This can include depictions of racial inequality, enslavement of African-Americans, shouting the f-word, not respecting the national anthem, young boy or girl violence, too much exposure to chest hair or beach-body figures, or other forms of discrimination that evoke strong negative reactions from viewers.

    Offensive ads like Coolest Monkey in the Jungle and Twelve Years of enslaved person can damage a brand’s reputation and lead to boycotts or public outrage, undermining the intended marketing objectives.

    Why can challenging or controversial ads gain attention?

    Challenging or controversial ads can gain attention because they disrupt expectations and provoke emotional responses from viewers. These ads can capture people’s interest and generate widespread discussion and debate by tackling controversial topics or pushing boundaries.

    Additionally, creating controversy can attract media coverage and social media attention, amplifying the ad’s reach and impact.

    Key Takeaways

    The most controversial commercials can be a double-edged sword for advertisers. While they have the potential to grab attention, spark discussions, and generate buzz for a brand or product, they also carry significant risks.

    Controversial ads may alienate or offend certain audience segments, leading to backlash, negative publicity, and damage to a brand’s reputation.

    Therefore, advertisers must carefully consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of creating controversial content, ensuring that it aligns with their brand values and effectively communicates their message without crossing ethical or cultural boundaries.

    Ensure your message resonates with your audience and aligns with your brand values [4]. Let Vidico craft a compelling and thought-provoking campaign for your business. Use our VidiFit Quiz today to explore the possibilities!


    In need of video? Get a quick estimate
    Find the right type of video to meet your marketing goals and get an instant estimation on how much it would cost to produce it.
    Get pricing
    Stand out with advanced video marketing insights.

    Stand out with advanced video marketing insights.

    For free.
    Once a month.
    5-min read.
    Book intro call

    Start with a free strategy session

    You can try us out, and see our approach before formal engagement. Really!
    Book an intro call