December 21, 2023 | Kyle Climans

Scandalous Facts About PR Disasters

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently".—Warren Buffet

Sometimes a company or an organization sees a chance to increase the spotlight on themselves or profit from an opportunity. While these risks sometimes pay off, there are so many other stories of an incident which can only be described as a PR disaster. These events lead to outrage, scandal, or simple embarrassment, and the consequences have varied in size based on the faux-pas. Enjoy this list of moments which had people scratching their heads and wondering how anyone could ever have thought they were good ideas.

1. For the Kids!

Supermarket activity books have always provided a handy bit of fun for the kids to enjoy, including their word searches. However, one particular word search that appeared in a Woolworths activity book came under fire when a certain, not-so-PG four-letter word was discovered smack dab in the middle of the puzzle. In Woolworths' defense, the word search had been filled in by a random letter generator, but you know what they say—put a million random letter generators at a million typewriters and eventually they'll spell out the F word.

PR Disasters

2. We Need to Buy a Lottery Ticket

Random letter and number generators haven’t just limited their unpredictable mischief to supermarket hijinks. Delta Airlines was red in the face when a passenger looked at his confirmation slip and realized that the code read “H8GAYS". Oops.

PR Disasters facts Wikimedia Commons

3. We Voted Down ‘Illuminati’

Chocolate company Italo-Suisse waited nearly a full century before changing their name in 2014, given that they were neither Italian or Swiss anymore. Somehow, they decided on the name ISIS. Again, in 2014. The company suffered huge sales falls when people refused to buy chocolates which shared a name with a known terrorist group. They’re now known as Libeert, named after the family which owns the company.

PR Disasters facts Shutterstock

4. We Had a Battle There? When?

Behind Taco Bell and KFC is the company known as Yum Brands. In 2014, they decided to open a new Vietnamese-style sandwich shop in Dallas called "Banh Shop." They decorated the eatery with a red star, which they somehow didn’t realize was the symbol of the Vietnamese Communist party, which had taken over North Vietnam, unified the country under themselves, and had driven thousands of Vietnamese to flee abroad. Those refugees and their relatives who found out about Banh Shop had a fairly negative response to Yum Brands' tone-deaf symbol choice (no doubt Ho Chi Minh would have appreciated it though).

PR Disasters factsShutterstock

5. Nipplegate

When Justin Timberlake hosted the Super Bowl earlier this year, most people's minds wandered back to 2004, the last time that JT appeared as a half-time performer. That year, in a shocking move, he and Janet Jackson coordinated a dance move into their act which involved him ripping a piece of her costume off. The plan was to expose Jackson's red-laced bra, but as we all know, Timberlake ended up showing 141 million people a little more than that. The subsequent scandal led to CBS being fined $550,000, a record amount at the time, and led to widespread debates about decency in broadcasting. If anyone thought that Timberlake might try to pull something like that off again this year, you needn't have worried—broadcasters have implemented a five second delay ever since Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction.

The AOL TopSpeed Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show Produced by MTVGetty Images

6. Fool Me Twice…

Despite the outrage exhibited towards Nipplegate, the only lesson that ESPN seemed to learn from all that hoopla was that scandal sells. As a result, the following year ESPN released a tv spot on Monday Night Football wherein NFL star Terrell Owens must deal with an attempted seduction by Nicollette Sheridan from Desperate Housewives (look it up, it was a thing back then) while she was wearing nothing but a bath towel (and at one point, not even that!). ESPN missed out on the fine, but not the wave of outraged protests.

PR Disasters factsFlickr, Collision Conf

7. We Want Our Chicken!

On behalf of KFC, Oprah promoted their new grilled chicken on her show, offering coupons for free samples. Perhaps KFC underrated Oprah’s audience and persuasiveness, because the franchise was soon overwhelmed by hungry customers knocking on their doors looking for grilled chicken. Supply didn’t meet demand, spawning protests and upset customers everywhere. The embarrassment was later parodied on the Adult Swim show The Boondocks.

Oprah Winfrey factsGetty Images

8. Curse You, Ryan Reynolds!

Sometimes, you learn something about a brand that makes it impossible to see them the same way again.

Domino’s Pizza was rocked by a scandal in 2009 when two of its employees filmed themselves doing gross things to the food that was going out to the public, presumably after they watched Waiting. After a million people saw the videos, Domino’s fired the offenders and publicly apologized. However, the damage was already done. And here I though I couldn't be more grossed out by Domino's.

PR Disasters factsWikimedia Commons

9. Who Knew Beating Up This Guy Would Have Consequences?

It was a shocking scene in 2017 when a doctor on a United Airlines flight was told by the crew that he had to give up his seat due to overbooking. Due to the demands of his job, the doctor insisted that he had to leave on that flight, so security responded by violently dragging him off the plane, even as the man wailed and everyone pulled out their phones and recorded what happened. The shocking scene was everywhere on the internet for a few weeks, painting the airline in a horrible light and raising long-awaited questions about the practice overbooking. Well United, do you think it was worth taking that guy off the plane now?

PR Disasters factsWikimedia Commons

10. Ending Most Hypothetical

The OJ Simpson manslaughter trial of the 90s was an event which captured almost an entire nation’s attention so that any kind of verdict was guaranteed to divide people. The scandal was so culturally resonant that it inspired Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp subdivisions known as Fox News and HarperCollins to green light a special project in 2006: Simpson would sit down for a two-part interview on the subject of how he would have ended his wife if he actually did it. A book, literally titled If I Did It, was also supposed to be released. The public’s fury towards such a tasteless idea caused Murdoch to reverse tracks as fast as possible and cancel both projects. However 400,000 copies of the book had already been printed, and eventually the whole thing was leaked online. As for Simpson, he would later be jailed for armed attack, serving nine years before being granted parole in 2017.

O.J. Simpson Trial FactsGetty Images

11. No. Just… No…

It's sad to think that in 2003, a year in which The Wire was providing a sobering look at what the urban drug trade was really all about, a major company like Urban Outfitters still couldn’t see anything wrong with selling a game called "Ghettopoly." To make it extra cringeworthy, the rules of the game declared that you could collect $50 for getting “yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack". We wish we were making this up.

PR Disasters factsWikimedia Commons

12. You’ve Gotta Be Joking…

Drinks firm Bulmers (a cider company associated with Heineken) wanted to honor their old benefactor, Rev. CH Bulmer, in an ad. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a picture of the good reverend, so Bulmers picked a photograph from the same era in which he lived, passing the other man off as the reverend in their advertisement. The problem was that the man whose image they acquired was Hugh Price Hughes. Hughes was a well-known Methodist who devoted his life’s work to helping alcoholics recover from their addiction. We imagine the heads of Bulmers secretly had a good laugh over that bit of irony before issuing their solemn apologies.

PR Disasters factsFlickr, Walt Jabsco

13. Passengers or Hostages?

In 2007, JFK Airport was hit by a vicious ice storm which caused the crews of nine JetBlue planes to stay on the runway until the storm waned. They also decided to keep over 1,000 passengers on the planes rather than risk their safety. For 11 hours, the passengers’ fury increased, but the JetBlue crews wouldn’t release them until airport vehicles arrived to transport them. The incident was so controversial that it sparked serious debate in the US government as to the rights of airline passengers.

PR Disasters factsFlickr, Charles

14. Funeral Crashers

Handbag company Valentino came under fire when they publicly patted themselves on the back for having one of their handbags photographed in the hands of Oscar-nominated actress Amy Adams. They released the picture of Adams, along with a short message of self-praise. The problem was that the photograph had been taken of Adams on her way to the funeral of her friend and co-star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Safe to say that Valentino was quick to try and apologize for their tasteless self-promotion at the expense of a grieving woman trying to pay her last respects. 

PR Disasters factsWikipedia

15. Make it Say What You Want!

Perhaps in an effort to avoid hiring round-the-clock Twitter managers, Oreo Cookies simply set up a feature on their Twitter account that meant any tweet mentioning Oreo would get an automatic response. With no less hesitation than a kid making a parrot repeat swear words, Twitter users caused Oreo's Twitter account to endorse and respond to vulgar curse words and outright biasing. That's what they get for trying to skimp out on Twitter managers.

Biggest Work Mistakes factsWikimedia Commons

16. Isn’t There a Song for This Occasion?

Abercrombie & Fitch is hardly a stranger when it comes to sexually explicit catalogues, but they crossed a line in 2002 when they introduced a clothing line of thong underwear aimed at girls aged 10-14. Their defense that it was meant to be “lighthearted and cute” didn’t stop mass boycotts, criticism, and protests from expressing the opinion that they might reconsider this direction of clothes.

PR Disasters factsWikimedia Commons

17. How Do You Apologize To The Someone Is Gone?

Beginning in 1998, a series of car accidents occurred when tires began separating from their cars. People noticed that this problem seemed to specifically plague Bridgestone tires. Until 2000, Bridgestone hotly denied that there was anything wrong with their tires, only for an investigation by the NHSTA to conclude the opposite was true. More than 700 people were wounded and nearly 200 were ended because of these tires. Bridgestone re-called 6.5 million tires, while its representatives presumably couldn’t look their parents in the eye for a good long while.

PR Disasters factsWikimedia Commons

18. Merchants of The End

In 2004, pharmaceutical company Merck recalled the painkiller known as Vioxx due to dangers of health risk to the heart. The scandal, however, was the fact that Merck had been aware of this risk for four years but had sat on the information, promoting the drug without warning anyone. As a result, thousands of cardiac-related deaths within those years might have been caused by Vioxx. The subsequent five years witnessed hundreds of lawsuits and an SEC investigation. A total of $80 million was paid out by Merck. I don't know about anyone else, but that doesn't seem like enough to me.

PR Disasters factsWikipedia

19. Spend it Wisely

Speaking of bailout money, 2008 also witnessed insurance corporation AIG receiving $85 billion from the US government to avoid bankruptcy. Then, in a move that the White House officially declared “despicable,” AIG hosted a corporate retreat in California for nearly $500,000 just one week later. Come on guys, really?

PR Disasters factsWikipedia

20. (Flying) Hats in Hand

Anybody who’s seen The Big Short, or anyone who paid attention in 2008, will know that the collapse of the US housing bubble had horrific effects all across the country, with the majority of the suffering saddled upon the country's working class. American automakers were also affected by the crisis, with the heads of G.Motors, Ford, and Chrysler eventually making the trip to the House Financial Services Committee to ask for a $25 billion bailout. In a rather embarrassing moment, these three CEOs, who were begging for free money while countless Americans faced poverty, were asked by a Representative to raise their hands if they had taken commercial airlines to DC for the meeting, rather than luxury private jets. Faces turned red, and of course no hands were raised. The media had a field day with the obvious faux-pas, but it didn't stop the government from giving the companies a $25 billion loan, though.

PR Disasters factsThe Big Short (2015), Paramount Pictures

21. Thank You for Having a Smoke

It takes a special kind of person to argue for the benefits of smokers on a country’s economy. Philip Morris, a cigar company, was filled with such people. They wanted to counter the Czech Republic’s argument that “the financial costs of having a smoke outweighed its benefits". While most would see that as common sense, Philip Morris doubled down by arguing that the early deaths of smokers actually proved to be a $20-30 million profit for the Czech Republic’s budget. Because really, there’s nothing like telling your own customers that they’re going to be gone young, and that it's actually a good thing for everyone else!

PR Disasters factsWikimedia Commons

22. Kor-dashian

We all get frustrated on planes, and we hope for the day we can one day ride in first class instead of coach, but apparently people find reasons to be upset in first class too. Imagine the rage you would feel if you got your macadamia nuts served in a bag instead of on a plate! Korean Air Vice President (and heiress) Cho Hyun-ah threw a temper tantrum that only a truly wealthy person with no check on her privilege could throw: She screamed at the attendants, forced them to kneel in front of her, and even had the plane turned back to the gate so she could fire the chief steward properly—all because of the nut-mishap. Who else feels like flying Korean Air now?

PR Disasters factsWikipedia

23. How Many Ways Can You Say “Sorry”?

Naturally, such prima donna behavior wasn’t appreciated by the general public. It was such a disaster for Korean Air that Cho Hyun-ah publicly resigned her position, apologizing profusely for her behavior, while her father expressed his regret for not raising his “foolish” daughter with more respect. Not only that, Hyun-ah had to deal with five offender charges, including obstruction of business and intimidation (being a spoiled brat isn’t one of them, sadly). Hyun-ah was ultimately given one year in lock up, which makes us think that’s a good basis for a South Korean adaptation of Orange is the New Black.

PR Disasters factsGetty Images

24. Stay After Class

Speaking of mistaken identities, a publishing house based in Thailand did a quick Google search to find a good image to put on the front of a math textbook. They picked a picture of a young woman in a school uniform reading a book, which seemed perfectly fine. However, the woman in question was none other than Japanese adult star Mana Aoki, and the still of her in uniform came from a video called Costume Play Working Girl. Safe to say, the publishing house had a very interesting apology to make once someone put the dots together (though how that happened must surely be an interesting story in itself).

Search Histories factsShutterstock

25. No, but Children are Permitted

Frozen was a huge hit when it came out, attracting children and their families by the millions. So naturally, when one Florida theater listed Frozen as one of its movies, it had a packed viewing. You can imagine their shock and surprise when a very R-scene trailer from the very much R-rated film Dallas Buyers Club was displayed before Frozen began. The theater owner frantically apologized, blaming a programming error for suddenly ending dozens of childhoods with a two-minute preview.

PR Disasters factsFrozen (I) (2013), Walt Disney Animation Studios

26. Blasts in Boston

No doubt the Cartoon Network thought that they’d struck gold in 2007 when they came up with a unique way to promote their show Aqua Teen Hunger Force. No less than 38 light-up signs were cached around the city of Boston in random places. The lack of context, however, caused panicked citizens to suspect there was foul play. After explosives squads and other emergency services were deployed throughout the city to find all the signs (shutting down part of the subway system in the process), the ire turned towards the Cartoon Network, whose head took the blame and dropped onto his metaphorical sword by resigning. Meanwhile, two men who had put the signs into place around the city faced lawful charges.

PR Disasters factsWikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


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