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The Red Bull balls-up: Six examples of brand slogans that failed

15th Oct 2014
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This week, a story gained flight from the U.S. Southern District of New York about a guy called Benjamin Careathers, who took Red Bull to court over the legitimacy of its slogan, and won. He won big, in fact. The Austrian-based drinks provider settled his claim to the tune of a staggering $13m.

His issue? The fact that, despite drinking the caffeinated energy drink regularly for 10 years, he had not, at any point, grown wings or developed the power of flight.

Ignoring the potential argument around the case being one hell of a PR stunt, or the rumour that Red Bull made a late and failed attempt to call Icarus to the witness box as a counter-claimant, the whole event does raise one important question – what’s in a slogan? And how important is it that your brand creates a piece of foolproof, watertight copy for its marketers to set to work with without being ridiculed at a later point?

With this in mind, we thought we’d take a look at some examples of when slogans went wrong, in the hope that we can all learn from these mistakes and avoid having our wings clipped like Red Bull did, in the future.

  1. Electrolux sucks  

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Back in the late 1960s, Scandinavian vacuum cleaning product maker Electrolux probably thought its advertising campaign – a picture of a vacuum cleaner so powerful it was pulling the Leaning Tower of Pisa on its side – was an act of genius.

To be fair, it was, for a time. Released in Britain, where suck was a term that meant to imbibe or to consume, the ad was successful and the slogan went unjudged. But then they sent the ad over to the States and the results weren’t quite the same…

Roll on 40+ years, and ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’ is still referred to in nearly every article, like this one, to have been written on the topic of ‘brand blunders’.

  1. Running royals

In 1997, a canny piece of direct mail from Weight Watchers featured Sarah Ferguson, the Dutchess of York, with a caption stating that losing weight was "harder than outrunning the paparazzi."

In an unfortunate piece of timing, however, the advert dropped into peoples’ mailboxes at the exact time of Princess Diana’s death. The slogan was quickly pulled.

  1. Pepsi-fuelled afterlife

When Pepsi expanded their market to China in 1981, two years after their rival Coca-Cola, they launched with the slogan, “Pepsi brings you back to life”. Unfortunately, in a common act of slogan mistranslation, the phrase in actual fact translated to “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

Given the level of urban myth associated with this particular blunder, it’s impossible to confirm or deny how many of China’s vast population took to the tombs of their loved ones with watering cans and bottles of Pepsi at the ready, however people were obviously miffed by the validity of Pepsi’s claims – the drinks firm reportedly struggled with sales for a number of years in China, during a time when its rivalry with Coca-Cola was in full-swing.

  1. Stop-start service

Opening yourself to scrutiny is part of the day job if you’re a telecoms provider, but Verizon perhaps opened themselves up more than most, when they switched from the slogan “Join In” to “We never stop working for you”, in 2002.

The tagline was well-received at the time for showing the level of commitment Verizon was willing to show to customer service support, however it subsequently led to customers referencing the copy every time they were let down by their phone network or calls were dropped. Verizon switched the slogan to “It’s the Network” in 2005, which was perhaps ambiguous enough to avoid the constant citation of its predecessor.     

  1. The Babelfish?

Perhaps a tad unfairly described as one of the worst slogans of all-time, Long John Silver’s, a fast food seafood restaurant based predominantly across the U.S., used to run with the tag ‘We Speak Fish’.

The slogan wasn’t enough to drive Yum! (owner of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) away from acquiring the fishy business in 1998; however, the company quickly replaced the strapline. It’s possible the executives at Yum! were able to foresee a Red Bull-style court case by which Long John’s were taken to the cleaners for claiming to have sub-aqueous telekinetic powers and no actual connection to Aquaman. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t soon enough to avoid The Daily Meal summing the tag up with the following:

“How do you say “meaningless and awkward slogan” in fish?”

  1. When sweet goes sour   

Cadbury delivered an act of political ignorance in 2002, when it launched an advertising campaign in India with the slogan, “"I'm too good to share. What am I? Cadbury's Temptations or Kashmir?"

Given that, as the BBC puts it, “arguments over Kashmir may have taken India and Pakistan to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon” the strapline could be deemed as insensitive to the extreme, especially in conjunction with the associated creative:

“Had such a thing happened in the US, Cadbury's stock and sales would have burrowed deep in the ground and its executives asked to apologise publicly. Shame on crass commercialism shown by Cadbury's. Shame on the management," said one angry letter to the Times of India.

It didn’t take long for Cadbury’s to realise the nature of the gaffe and apologise.

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