With snow gently falling and cold evenings filled with twinkling lights, it’s easy to love the holiday season. For agencies, Christmas time doesn’t just represent holiday parties and hot chocolate; it marks one of the busiest seasons for print and television ads. Global advertising budgets explode through the month of December, and with the increase in advertising, there is an increase in competition for audience attention. But with that increase in competition, some advertisers miss the mark and create campaigns that are intentionally or unintentionally offensive. This year, like years past, there has been more than one example of advertisers pushing the limits of good taste in their holiday campaigns. With that in mind, we’d like to present two holiday losers (and one big winner,) for the biggest advertising controversies of the holidays.

The Edeka Campaign
(VIDEO LINK – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6-0kYhqoRo)
Nothing says Christmas spirit quite like faking your own death so your family is forced to come visit. German supermarket chain, Edeka, wanted a campaign that would highlight the family-gathering aspect of the holidays. Set to somber music, this 90-second long commercial features an older man eating Christmas dinner by himself year after year, and his children and grandchildren busily living their lives around the world. At the climax, his children are all informed that their father has died, and all return to their family home for the funeral. It’s an incredibly touching advertisement up until this point, and even the most cynical heartstrings are pulled. Then, to the surprise of everyone, the family patriarch isn’t dead, rather he elaborately faked his death to gather his family around the same table for Christmas. The family, grateful that their father is still breathing, laughably celebrates the holiday with a joyous dinner. Using emotional appeal only works in advertising if the campaign is remotely believable. In an impressively short time, this campaign goes from heartwarming, to tragic, to hilariously out of touch with human emotion.

Bloomingdale’s Blunder
You would figure that avoiding any implication of date rape in your ad campaign would be a no-brainer, but luxury department store Bloomingdale’s had to learn that lesson the hard way. In their 2015 holiday catalogue, there is an image of a young woman laughing and looking off camera, while a man stares at her intently from the other side of frame. Innocent enough, but between the pair of models sits the copy “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.” Suddenly, the intent gaze of the male model takes on a sinister vibe, and the advertisement begins to look like a PSA about consent rather than a department store’s ad for Christmas. Facing huge backlash from the online community, Bloomingdale’s released several apologies, admitting that it was “inappropriate,” and “in bad taste.”

With these two examples, the campaign took a risk and it didn’t pay off. Occasionally although, a little controversy goes a long way towards generating momentum for a campaign, as long as the controversy isn’t malicious or victimizing. With that in mind…

Starbucks’ Red Cups
Coffee juggernaut Starbucks generated massive amounts of free press this year with the design of their holiday themed to-go cups. Unlike previous years, where the seasonal cup would be busy with holiday icons, this year’s cup design went minimalist with a plain red cup. Contrasting with the green label, the red cup represented the brand well while also looking festive and clean. Some brand loyalists (and nut-jobs) mistook the choice to move away from holiday imagery as an affront to the Christmas spirit, and took to the Internet to blast the company. The Internet responded, and for the most part, ridiculed those who were offended by something as simple as a coffee cup. The outrage fuelled big laughs from late-night talk show hosts, and Starbucks received a huge amount of truly organic marketing. Whether intentional or unintentional, Starbucks struck gold with red cups.