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An Iranian billboard featuring Israeli soldiers, and other epic advertising fails

Globalization is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it connects people from all corners of the world and promotes greater mutual understanding.
On the other, the potential for causing huge offense goes stratospheric. The advertising industry likes to believe it is inclusive and culturally-sensitive. Indeed, the purpose of advertising is to appeal to the masses. Whether it’s a successful multi-national agency or a smaller, more localized outfit, none is immune to the embarrassing faux pas. And when they get it wrong, they really get it wrong.
A billboard appeared in the Iranian city of Shiraz this week to commemorate the end of the war between Iran and Iraq in Sacred Defense Week. It depicted three soldiers, photographed from behind, standing on a hilltop.
So far, so noble. The trouble was, the soldiers were wearing Israeli uniforms.
For a country whose avowed wish is to wipe Israel from the face of the earth, this was no laughing matter. Cue mass outrage on Twitter and mockery from the Israeli foreign ministry.
The head of Shiraz city council, Seyyed Ahmad Dastgheyb, has promised to “deal seriously” with those responsible for the ad.
Whoever that was — wisely, they are keeping their heads down for the moment — it is difficult to make excuses. A small, local advertising agency should have known better. A larger multinational with greater resources should have done better research.
The only mitigating factor is that the Shiraz culprits are far from alone in messing up. Here are 10 ads that also caused a storm:

1. Ogilvy & Mather is one of the world’s biggest marketing and communications companies. But a commercial made for Audi in China featuring a mother of the groom checking the bride’s teeth, tongue and ears as if she were a racehorse sent a seriously off-key message. The ad carried the tagline: “An important decision must be made carefully” — advice clearly not followed by the ad agency or Audi.

2. The thinking behind a 2014 ad campaign for Kurl-on mattresses in India was that if you fall on one, you will bounce back. One ad featured the cartoon figure of a young girl being shot in the head, falling on to a Kurl-on mattress and “bouncing back” to win an award. This was two years after 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai — clearly the model for the cartoon figure — was shot and nearly killed by the Taliban while riding on a bus to school. Ogilvy & Mather’s Indian branch, the agency behind the ad, were forced to issue an apology. Another ad in the same series depicted Gandhi “bouncing back” after being thrown off a first-class train carriage.

3. Tesco, the British supermarket chain, is the third-largest retailer in the world with stores in seven countries, including predominantly Muslim Malaysia and India, which has a large Muslim population. Yet at a London store during Ramadan 2015, the Pringles display boasted a cheery “Ramadan Mubarak” slogan over tubes of smokey bacon-flavoured snacks. To make matters worse, the store in question was in Liverpool Street, close to the East London mosque, one of the largest in Europe.

4. Indian company MVF Products caused a storm when its ad for Hitler ice-cream cones — complete with a picture of Der F├╝hrer on the packaging — went viral in 2015. Company boss Neeraj Kumar’s explanation that the cones were named after an uncle who was nicknamed “Hitler” because of his quick temper did not wash.

5. In 2013, a series of ads for the Ford Figo hatchback showed women bound and gagged in the boot of the car — a Ford hatchback, with the tagline “Leave your worries behind with Figo’s extra large boot.” One of the images depicted a grinning Silvio Berlusconi, who was prime minister of Italy at the time and embroiled in a sex scandal. Even more shockingly, the posters by ad agency JWT India came out at a time when the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old New Delhi student (who subsequently died) focused worldwide attention on India and its attitudes to sex crimes.

6. In 2015, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, urged baristas in his coffee shop chain to write “Race Together” on coffee cups in a bid to start a dialogue with customers about race. Though well-intentioned, the idea earned him only mockery and a lot of personal insults on Twitter. 7. In 2017 Unilever had to apologize for an ad for Dove body lotion which featured a black women peeling off her T-shirt to reveal a white-skinned woman underneath. The 30-second full-length TV ad went on to show the white women removing her top to reveal an Asian woman underneath but unfortunately, most people only saw the three-second “black-skin-to-white” version on social media.

8. German skincare brand Nivea also had to apologize for an advert that was deemed racially insensitive. The ad for deodorant carried the tagline “White is purity” and was used in the Middle East.

9. In Thailand, Dunkin’ Donuts used the image of a woman with her face painted black to promote a new “charcoal doughnut.” The chief executive of Dunkin’ Donuts’ Thai franchise, whose daughter was the model, said that he didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Light-skinned performers using so-called blackface make-up to represent a caricature of a black person became popular in the 19th century but the practice ended in the 1960s.

10. Last year, Pepsi released a commercial in which reality TV star and model Kendall Jenner defuses a tense confrontation between police and demonstrators by offering a police officer a can of the fizzy drink. Pepsi were accused of trivializing protests such as the Black Lives Matter marches that swept across the US after a spate of shootings of black Americans. The advert, which lasted two minutes and 40 seconds, was condemned on social media, parodied on television and swiftly withdrawn.
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