Spooktacularly bad PR fails

To coincide with Halloween and the general theme of ghouls, ghosts and goblins, we decided to concoct our list of five real life PR horror crimes committed by big brands who really ought to know better.


Supermarkets launch ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costume

Let’s kick it off with one that is based on Halloween itself. A few years ago, Asda and Tesco decided that it would be a good idea to sell costumes of ‘mental and pyscho ward’ patients for Halloween, sparking a Twitter storm.

The £20 Asda outfit included ragged clothing, fake blood, a mask and fake meat cleaver while Tesco’s orange boiler suit came with a plastic jaw restraint and offered to “complete the look” with a machete. Safe to say it didn’t go down hugely well with mental health campaigners and many others who criticised the retailers for stigmatising people with mental health issues.

After the fierce backlash, Asda quickly removed its “mental patient fancy dress costume” from its website, and Tesco later withdrew its “psycho ward” outfit. Following outrage, including from one “stunned” mental health charity, both stores apologised for any offence caused and agreed to make donations to the mental health charity, Mind.

We’re staggered that not one, but two retailers ever thought this was a good idea.

asda halloween fail

The Walkers Crisps Twitter Sabotage

Last year, Walkers Crisps saw their “Walkers Wave” campaign sabotaged on social media within hours by pranksters, resulting in their crisp-eater-in-chief Gary Lineker being pictured clutching photos of Fred West and Harold Shipman in online videos on Twitter.

Devised to celebrate the Champions’ League Final, the campaign included a competition to win tickets to the game and Walkers asked social media users to respond to a tweet from the official Walkers Crisps Twitter account with a selfie, using the hashtag #WalkersWave, as part of the chance to win the tickets.

The user’s picture would then be incorporated into a personalised video, featuring Gary Lineker, automatically tweeted and captioned by Walkers. Sensing a flaw in Walkers’ campaign tactics, people on Twitter started to respond with pictures of serial killers and disgraced celebrities.

The campaign was pulled quickly and all activity shut down – awkward!

Walkers Harold Shipman Twitter fail

Subway tells women to lay off burgers so they’ll look sexy for Halloween

Our second Halloween inspired PR fail on the list. This one is a few years old but still a classic case of ‘who on earth thought it was a good idea to sign that campaign off?’.

In the weeks leading up to October 31st, fast food chain Subway aired a new advert that told women to avoid fatty food so that they can squeeze into skimpy Halloween costumes. The TV clip showed a woman having lunch with office colleagues, who is horrified at catching them eating burgers for their lunch. The woman (who happened to be slim) then exclaims that Halloween is coming and that ladies should stay in top shape so that they can look their best in sexy fancy dress.

Unsurprisingly this caused outrage among women, who demanded it be pulled from airwaves. A spokesperson for the brand said: “We understand that some people may not have picked up on the intended humour in our US Halloween commercial. Our objective was certainly not to offend anyone.”

Yeah, right.

subway halloween outfit

Urban outfitters release a blood-stained Kent State University sweatshirt

Our third and final Halloween example is a lesson in how to not do a PR stunt. Urban Outfitters launched a “vintage, one-of-a-kind Kent State sweatshirt” for just $129 shortly before Halloween. The shirt was decorated with a blood spatter-like pattern, reminiscent of the 1970 “Kent State Massacre” that left four people dead.

This regrettable product choice quickly resulted in outrage and Kent State University lashed out at the retailer’s decision to sell the sweatshirt, saying: “We take great offence to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit.”

As outrage spread further, Urban Outfitters issued an apology for the product claiming that the product was “purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection.” The company added that the bright red stains and holes, which certainly seemed to suggest blood, were simply “discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.” The statement added: “We deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively.”

Publicity stunt cringe all-round!

Urban Outfitters fail

Lady Doritos – crisps for women

You would think most crisp-type snacks would fall into a unisex category, but earlier this year the CEO of PepsiCo, which makes Doritos, thought there was a need for a cleaner, quieter version of the snack just for ladies.


In an interview with Freakonomics Radio, Indra Nooyi said that while men ate the fluorescent triangular snacks licking their orange fingers “with great glee” and pouring the scraps from the bottom of the bag into their mouths, women didn’t.

“They don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces, and the flavour, into their mouths.”

We hope this was just a bad PR stunt and that PepsiCo isn’t actually launching a female version of Doritos (Doritas?). Gender marketing sometimes works (think ‘Yorkie’ the chocolate that was marketed in 2002 as “not for girls” increased sales that first year by 30%) but on the whole, we find it hugely patronising.

There is no place and no need for “female-friendly” crisps. End of.

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Stefanie Hopkins