Selling At Any Cost: The Most Controversial Ads Ever

Companies have been coming under fire for what some consider to be controversial ads since the beginning of advertising. These ads have it all, from racism, to sexism, to re-imagined history! See which companies put out the ads and what others have said about them.

Chained Child

In 2016, Versace released a campaign featuring model Gigi Hadid. Gigi is the daughter of Yolanda Foster (of Real Housewives fame) and Mohamed Hadid (a real estate mogul). In the ad, Gigi is shown as a chic mother walking with her husband and two children. The older child in the photos looks to be six or seven years old, which would mean Gigi would have been a VERY young mother in real life.


The model had just recently celebrated her 21st birthday. People were outraged by the ad because they said it romanticized teenage motherhood. Other people were outraged that the ads featured Gigi with biracial children, one of whom appears to be chained to her stroller. While it may be just a fashion statement, it is pretty outrageous that the creators of the ad would choose to show a child of African descent in chains.

Calvin Klein Upskirt

Calvin Klein has been creating controversial advertisements for decades now, so it’s no surprise to see them pop up on this list. This ad appeared for their Spring 2016 collection, and was clearly trying to push the bar. The ad features model/actress Klara Kristin in a photograph that has been staged as an “upskirt” photo. People were immediately outraged and they say that it’s overtly sexist towards women.

Calvin Klein Upskirt

People also say that because the model is quite young, it could appeal to pedophiles. Klara responded on her own Instagram account on what she thinks of the ad and the controversy saying, “I LOVE this photo @harleyweir took of me…all this discussion about how alienated and scared some people are to (sic) the female human body… Be and love yourself and your sexuality.”

Kardashian Controversy

The Kardashian clan is no stranger to controversy, and that includes younger sister Kendall Jenner. Kendall has become a very sought after model in the fashion industry, and some say it’s only a former of nepotism that she has been given such opportunities. Kendall was chosen as the face of Mango’s Spring 2016 “Tribal Spirit” campaign. We can already tell with that name, this means trouble.


If the name “tribal” wasn’t alarming enough, the line itself showcased looks inspired by the African Savannah. People took to social media to voice their outrage over why Kendall, a white model, was given the job when there are many beautiful models who are also women of color. Mango representatives declined to comment on the matter, so only time will tell if they continue to cast white models over women of color.

Normalize Breastfeeding

In 2016, a luxury gym called Equinox decided to make social commentary on the issues women are currently facing in society. They revealed their ad campaign called “Commit to something” which features model Lydia Hearst breastfeeding two babies in public while sitting at a restaurant having a meal. The connection seems to be that the babies should be able to eat at the same time as the rest of the family.

Normalize Breastfeeding

Photographer Steven Klein said of the photo, “This campaign addresses today’s issues and social commentaries.” “Normalize breastfeeding” has been a call out out by mothers and others in society to stop sexualizing breasts and destigmatizing the idea of public feeding so that breasts can be used for what they are actually designed for – feeding babies.

American Apparel

American Apparel has often been at the root of controversy, sometimes because of their ads and sometimes because of their founder Dov Charney. In 2014, they released this ad which featured a model who is actually a merchandiser with the company. She was displayed topless with the words “Made in Bangladesh” across her body.

American Apparel

The point of this ad is that “Made in Bangladesh” isn’t referring to the clothes but rather to the woman who was originally born in Bangladesh. The ad is calling attention to the fact that the clothes are made in America and supposed to showcase fair labor practices by the company. American Apparel has also been criticized for making what many feel are sexist ads and the founder has been subject to multiple sexual harassment laws.


For some strange reason, Ford Motor Company created this ad back in 2013. Apparently, there was a series of ads which showed cartoon women in barely-there get-ups and also bound and gagged. In one ad, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi flashed a peace sign from the front seat.


Ford ultimately had to apologize before the ads were even actually used. This ad is strange because there doesn’t seem to be any real reason to have women tied up in the back seat… perhaps it’s supposed to signify a lot of trunk room? Who knows! But what’s for sure is the ads were done in poor taste.

Addicted To Fashion

In 2007, the fashion label Sisley came up with this ad campaign called “Fashioin Junkie”. The ad showcases women in a bent over position holding straws to their noses while pretending to snort the clothes. People were outraged that the label was clearly referencing drugs, and more specifically heroin. To many this ad was neither in good taste or humor, as the fashion industry has often been riddled with complaints of drug use.


Models are expected to be stick thin, like a walking hanger, in order to show off the clothes successfully and some have use drugs to maintain their thinness. The label even chose to spell fashion – fashioin – which seems to be a clear nod to the drug heroin and the 90’s fashion look called “heroin chic”.

Death Row Fashion?

United Colors of Benetton has often been at the center of controversial ads in which they attempt to make a statement on issues about our society. Back in 2000, they put out an ad that consisted of portraits of death row inmates awaiting their fate in United States prisons. United Colors of Benetton was said to be attempting to show the harsh reality of capital punishment.


The ads also included the names of the prisoners, where they are incarcerated, their crime, and their sentence. At the time, the company was accused of lying in order to gain access to the inmates, with the state of Missouri even filing a lawsuit. People accused Benetton of being insensitive to the victims of those who were incarcerated, and the company ultimately apologized for the campaign.

Trivializing Domestic Violence

In 2012, Bulgaria’s 12 Magazine featured a spread that showed models with various bruises and injuries, including one with a black eye. Other models were shown with bloody lips, ripped out earrings, and even a slit throat. Many were outraged at the fact that the magazine seems to be touting domestic violence, and further trivializing violence against women by using the headline “Victim of Beauty”.


12 Magazine said they were not intending to show domestic violence but rather invited the reader to see whatever they saw fit and intended to only show off interesting photography. Editor Huben Hubenov said about the photos, “If they took the time to actually examine the photographs, instead of superficially jumping to [conclusions], they would’ve seen girls who look at us strongly, who look confident, who are above the wounds, above everything. They are independent.”


In 2012, an anti-obesity campaign called Strong4Life ran in the United States in the Atlanta area. Many were outraged because the ads targeted overweight children. People were outraged and said that it is not children’s faults if they are overweight for a variety of reasons.


One, they are given food by whoever is there caretaker. It is also the caretaker’s responsibility to make sure the child is getting adequate exercise. Secondly, some children have health issues that cause them to be heavy. Others have said that criticizing the child is not going to be making any changes. The ads should instead target the parents.

Indecent Child Ads?

In the late 1990’s, the often controversial Calvin Klein came under fire again when they had photos and billboards placed of boys modeling underwear. People were immediately outraged as many said the ads were akin to child pornography. Interestingly, these ads showed boys instead of girls when we often see it the other way around. After much public outraged, Calvin Klein dropped the campaign and all of the ads were removed.


The company had originally planned to reveal a massive billboard in New York City’s Times Square with a photo of boys in underwear but that also had to be covered up, as seen in the photograph. The company said, ”The comments and reaction that we have received today raised issues that we had not fully considered. ‘As a result, we have decided to discontinue the campaign immediately.”

Kissing Controversy

In 2011, United Colors of Benetton again stirred the controversy pot as they unveiled their “Unhate” campaign. The controversial images showed various leaders from around the world kissing one another. Obviously, the images were Photoshopped. One such imaged showcased President Barack Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao, and there were several others.


One image even showed Pope Benedict XVI, however, Benetton pulled that particular ad after the Vatican released a statement calling it unacceptable. Benetton said that the ads were intended, like the name, to create a feeling of belonging as opposed to hatred by using the various leaders as emblems of their respective countries.

Furry PETA

PETA always pushes the envelope when it comes to ads, and almost always goes the way of gratuitous nudity. In a 2012, the animal rights group was no different. PETA spokeswomen Joanna Krupa appeared in the 2012, about “fur trim”. The ad read, “fur trim is unattractive,” and faux fur was strategically placed in her bikini bottom.


Some people were outraged by this ad, saying it went too far, not only for the nudity but for the apparent shaming of women’s body hair. Obviously, the ad went over the top with the fur, but people were still appalled that it seemed to say that women were not attractive unless they took the time to shave or wax their naturally occurring hair.

The Pieta

This heartbreaking image was used by United Colors of Benetton ad that ran back in 1991. The ad, titled “Pieta”, was a nod to the famous Michelangelo sculpture of Mary cradling the dead Jesus. It was a photo showing David Kirby, an AIDS activist, while he lay dying. His grieving family was at his deathbed and his father was attempting to comfort him. Many criticized the photo for being used in order to make money on clothing items, and said the company was capitalizing off David’s death.

The Pieta

The photograph had been taken by Therese Frare. She had been asked by David’s family to take photos of them together in his final moments. In 2012, David’s father commented on the ad and the photograph saying, “Listen, Therese. Benetton didn’t use us, or exploit us. We used them. Because of them, your photo was seen all over the world, and that’s exactly what David wanted.”

Donut Blackface?

In 2013, Dunkin’ Donuts released this ad for chocolate donuts. The problem was that in addition to showing a black donut, the breakfast chain thought it was suitable to paint a white women in blackface to apparently match the pastry. The ad ran in magazines but also had a television commercial. In the commercial version, the woman’s skin color changes to black after she eats the donut.


There was immediately public outrage at the seemingly racist ad, as blackface has never been a good idea. The ad apparently originated from the chain’s Thailand stores and the franchise ultimately apologized for insensitive ad.

Car Over Women

BMW is yet another company known for employing what some consider to be sexist imagery. The first ad here reads “You know you’re not the first” which is an ad for a used BMW dealership. This is seemingly saying that although a beautiful woman has “been with” other men it doesn’t matter because she’s beautiful, which some say reduces the woman’s value to sex.

Car Over Women

The second ad, shows a man being intimate with a woman and placing a photo of a BMW over face, with the words “the ultimate attraction”. This one is pretty clear cut that they are trying say the man is more into the car than the woman. BMW has not apologized for their advertisement.

Size Matters

The burger chain Carl’s Jr., is another company that often features extremely sexy images of various (usually blonde) models. This particular ad featured a then-super famous Paris Hilton, in both the print and TV versions of the advertisement. The ad is clearly making a thinly veiled sexual innuendo, with the “She’ll tell you size doesn’t matter. She’s lying” subtext.

Size Matters

For some reason, the burger chain is really big on connecting sex with eating burgers. People of course were outraged because of the sexist view of women, particularly for the television commercial which was seen as too hot for TV.

Pen Sexism

This BIC ad came under fire when they released what was thought of as a sexist ad. Their timing did not help as the South African sector of the company released it as promotional material on International Women’s Day. The pen company’s ad read, “Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss.” Essentially, the company is inferring that women’s brains are not boss brains, that one must possess a man’s brain in order to be in charge. Yikes!

Pen Sexism

Of course, people online were totally outraged. The company immediately removed the post and issued an apology saying that they didn’t intend to offend anyone. They have also come under fire for making pens “for her”, so take that as you will.

Racist Computer

In 2007, the computer company Intel came under fire after releasing what many perceived to be a racist ad. The ad showcased a white man in an office, on either side of him appear three black men wearing spandex and in what appears be a sprinter’s starting position. The ad reads, “multiply computing performance and maximize the power of your employees.”

Racist Computer

Apparently, they are trying to advertise a faster computer processor, the Intel Core 2 Duo processor, however having a white man stand center why black men are bowing to him seems to be a pretty overt nod to an ugly past of slavery. At the time the VP of the company Nancy Bhagat wrote on her blog a statement regarding the advertisement saying, “Unfortunately, our execution did not deliver our intended message and in fact proved to be insensitive and insulting.”

Vodka Map

In 2008, Absolut Vodka issued an ad that featured a reimagined map of North America. The ad reads “In an Absolut world,” seemingly to say “in a perfect world.” The map shows the world as it was before the United States took over land that used to be Mexico, and where the border was originally before Mexico-America war of 1848.

Vodka Map

This is why many Mexicans say “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us”, which is in fact a true statement, at least for many Mexican and Mexican Americans’ not so distant ancestors. Some Americans found the ad insensitive while other thought it was interesting social commentary. This ad would definitely still create controversy today, don’t you think?