In the decade that I’ve been posting the year’s worst brand disasters, I’ve never seen a year where most of the big scandals involved either sexism or racism. In 2017, sexual harassment crawled out from under the corporate rock pile and into the glare of sunlight. Meanwhile, corporate racism reared its ugly head although I suspect the cause in this case was mostly insensitivity rather than intention.
Without further ado, then, here are this year’s worst of the worst:
Dove has been trying to position itself as a company that encourages a more diverse definition of beauty. However, when a Dove Soap ad depicted women changing races by pulling off T-shirts that matched the model’s skin color, it echoed racist soap ads of the past that positioned dark skin as something that could (and should) be washed away.
You’d think that a company storing credit cards, personal information and social security numbers for hundreds of millions of people would make cybersecurity a priority. Instead, Equifax was not only hacked but failed to report the hack for months and then, rather than compensating its victim, offered them a free year of a useless service… in return for signing away their right to sue.
Facebook is betting big that Virtual Reality will be the next big thing… presumably after 3D TV finally takes off. However, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to promote VR by hosting, in cartoon form, a visit through Puerto Rico’s devastated countryside, it came off just a teeny bit insensitive.
Given the wide variety of cultures around the world, it’s not surprising that international brands sometimes run afoul of local taboos. However, you’d think that Germany-based Beiersdorf Global AG would have run a pre-launch reality check before running an ad campaign for Nivea skin cream with the tag line “White Is Beautiful.”
Whatever you think of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, there’s no question that it’s a serious issue that requires serious thought. Not surprisingly, some people were appropriately offended when Pepsi tried to turn the movement into money with an ad showing Kendall Jenner (of all people) providing a Pepsi to protestors.
Poor Twitter. While it finally might become profitable in 2017, the company has been caught up in the growing distaste over the role social media plays in the spreading of fake news. As such, there couldn’t be a worse time for it to be revealed that a departing employee could easily bypass security to delete the company’s most famous user.
In branding, there are good problems and bad problems. The best problem of all is keep control of your brand after it becomes a common noun or verb (like Kleenex or Xerox). Uber was in that enviable position when its erstwhile CEO Travis Kalanick got caught on social media basically being a d***, less than 10 days after a former engineer, Susan Fowler penned a viral post positioning the company as a hotbed of sexual harassment and gender bias.
8. United Airlines
Sometimes it seems like the airlines are in competition for a secret award for the worst customer service in the industry. If that award exists, United Airlines certainly won it this year when the carrier forcibly yanked an elderly physician from his seat–bloodying him in the process–to make room for a freeloading employee.