Influencer marketing is insanely popular amongst brands in almost every industry. Probably because it can be very effective. Partnering with the right micro-influencers and macro-influencers on platforms like Instagram can help brands build trust and reach new audiences for less money than traditional advertising.
That’s likely why research from Business Insider predicts influencer marketing will be a US$15 billion industry by 2022! That’s double the size it was in 2019.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though.
Influencer marketing and influencer marketing campaigns are still largely a grey area in many ways and collaboration doesn’t come without risks.
Buckle up because we put together this list of the most epic influencer marketing fails of all time. Below you’ll find the bad, the cringe, and the hilarious influencer fails that brands and influencers themselves hope you forget.
Influencer marketing is tricky.
Brands must find an influencer with a following that accurately represents their niche. And that influencer must also reflect the brand’s values.
At the end of the day, influencers are human. Most aren’t celebrities with management and PR teams either. This can create a recipe for disaster when the influencer ultimately slips up in their personal or online life.
That’s why when influencer marketing fails happen, and it can really make you cringe with embarrassment for all those involved.
The 2017 partnership between Pepsi and Kendall Jenner is a prime example of an influencer marketing failure.
The idea is to stage a Black Lives Matter protest for Pepsi’s global diversity campaign in collaboration with the supermodel. In the ad, we see Kendall Jenner abandon her ongoing photoshoot to join the protest with people of all races promoting ‘unity in diversity.’
Right before Jenner joins, we see police attempting to control the crowd. But worry not – heroine of the day, Jenner, steps forward and offers one of the officers a canned Pepsi Cola. Pepsi becomes synonymous with peace and the white supermodel succeeds where so many before her have failed.
Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., even shared an iconic photo on Twitter of her father confronting the police during an American Civil Rights Movement. Her accompanying sarcastic caption was: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”
In the wake of the disaster, Pepsi took down the ad, apologised, and explained that they had merely wanted to promote unity in diversity and had meant no harm.
The ad is an example of how important it is to choose the right influencer to convey the right message. Otherwise, it may only invite (rightful) criticism and, indeed, do harm – especially to your brand.
2017 was a tough year for Kendall Jenner. When she and her sister Kylie launched a line of band tees, many of them depicting dead musicians, the influencer-sisters faced the wrath of the internet.
The T-shirts featured photographs and logos of well-known musicians and bands, including Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., and The Doors. More than that, each T-shirt was superimposed with a brightly coloured photograph of either Kylie or Kendall, or simply their logo: kk.
Critics raged and accused the sisters of trying to seek profit from musicians’ legacies. Notorious B.I.G.’s family was disgusted with the sisters. His mother wrote in an Instagram caption: “I have no idea why they feel they can exploit the deaths of 2Pac and my son Christopher to sell a t-shirt.”
Ouch, what a fail.
Using a disaster to self-promote is definitely a huge fail – but that is exactly what many influencers did when the devastating California Wildfires were raging, destroying homes and killing 84 people.
Opportunistic influencers used the disaster for self-promotion by posting unrelated pictures and tagging them with hashtags related to the disaster. Photos of the disaster with the hashtags #californiafires, #woolseyfire, and #malibufires appear on Instagram alongside random product ads and selfies.
That’s just distasteful, influencers.
Felix Kjellberg, more commonly known as PewDiePie on his YouTube channel, is known for posting videos showcasing himself as an eccentric comedian. With 53 million subscribers in 2017, he is one of the most popular YouTubers of all time.
But PewDiePie landed in massive controversy when he posted a video of himself reacting to an anti-Semitic video. The video showed two Sri Lankan men holding a banner reading, “Death to All Jews.” The video was removed and PewDiePie soon posted a new video in which he apologised to his followers.
That was only the first in a long line of PewDiePie influencer fails. During the Islamophobic terror attack at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the gunman shouted “subscribe to PewDiePie” before opening fire.
Celebrities have always been considered influencers. They have a voice and an existing following that values their opinions. That’s how endorsements work.
Big companies easily benefit from using familiar faces from the music, sports or film industry for their influencer marketing.
But when boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and rapper DJ Khaled became brand representatives for an illegal company, they were sued by investors who had thrown millions of dollars into Centra Tech, a company selling crypto-based financial products. In that way, Centra Tech managed to scam investors out of millions of real dollars.
Mayweather and Khaled, who had both signed deals with Centra Tech, took to Twitter and Instagram encouraging people to buy Centra Tech’s coins. According to TMZ, Mayweather even stated, “You can call me Floyd ‘Crypto’ Mayweather from now on.”
Centra Tech’s founder was charged in April 2018 with fraud and the two celebrity endorsers’ roles in sponsoring an illegal company is a prime example of a sort of reverse influencer marketing fail, where neither the company nor the influencers could be trusted.
Pin-up model Katie Price, also known as Jordan, surprised everyone when she in 2012 began tweeting about economic, social, and political issues – not exactly the model’s usual way of conducting herself on social media, to be honest.
It turns out that Snickers was behind it all and that it was related to their ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’ campaign. So, Katie Price’s sudden out-of-character enlightenment posts on important issues were just because she was hungry and therefore not… herself?
The backlash at Snickers began in earnest with people complaining about ‘misleading advertising.’ Always encourage your influencer to be transparent about the sponsorship.
When British pop group Little Mix promoted their branded perfume on their Instagram account, they forgot one tiny little detail.
In the caption, they pretended to be surprised by seeing their picture on the side of a taxi. But the authenticity of their surprise was tainted a bit by an obvious copy-paste situation in which the editor’s comment was included.
Well, now we know that Jade from the marketing department did, indeed, approve of that copy.
Little Mix are not the only ones in a bit of a rush to get an Instagram post out there. When BooTea Shake collaborated with reality TV person Scott Disick, Disick displayed complete sloppiness by simply copying the directions from the marketers and pasting it into his caption.
Disick, apparently, did not even bother to read through the copy from the marketers. This reflects badly on BooTea Shake because their influencer displays indifference, thereby adding zero or little value to BooTea’s message.
We can’t drive home the importance of transparency about sponsorship and paid content enough. When your influencers forget to disclose that their content is paid for, it has consequences.
Oreo collaborated with influencers Dan and Phil on a Lick Race challenge to see who could lick an Oreo clean first. Dan and Phil did not disclose that their content was paid by Oreo’s parent company Mondelez.
The video was removed, and another lesson was learned: Make sure you contractually obligate your influencers to disclose payment for content to avoid an influencer marketing fail like this one.
Like her sisters Kendall and Kylie, Kim also fell into the influencer marketing fail trap during her pregnancy with baby North West.
On her Instagram, Kim posted a picture promoting the morning sickness drug Diclegis but she forgot to list the full side effects of the drug, which is required when marketing pharmaceutical products. The FDA ordered Kim to remove the post and repost with the drug’s side effects listed – a potentially costly mistake.
Remember to make sure your influencer actually follows the marketing communications regulations of your product.
In 2012, Snoop Dogg collaborated with American microwaveable snack brand Hot Pockets on a commercial featuring a rendition of his own smash hit “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”
The commercial was filmed as a music video featuring Snoop Dogg himself, dancing women in tiny shorts, and a Hot Pocket dressed as a pimp. The lyrics were changed to “Pocket Like It’s Hot.”
You did not have to do that, Snoop. Honestly.
When Cristiano Ronaldo teamed up with a Japanese brand for the so-called Facial Fitness Pao, we were all a bit weirded out.
The product is a sort of mouthpiece with propellers and is meant to strengthen your facial muscles. It gets weirder: Ronaldo became the poster child for the quite absurd Japanese product.
Ronaldo probably also still smacks his forehead over that influencer marketing fail.
Like the rest of us, many of the biggest influencers started from the bottom and had to climb their way up.
Kim Kardashian is no exception. That’s why she’s earned another spot on this master list of influencer fails. In 2012, Kim K collaborated with toilet paper company Charmin Restrooms to promote their holiday pop-up toilets in Times Square.
Charmin gave Kim a huge key to unlock the temporary toilets thus making her face associated with… toilet paper. Luckily for Kim, toilets are no longer the first thing that comes to mind when you think of her today.
Strapped Condoms is a prophylactic brand with an incredibly positive vision to help the young African American community.
In a campaign designed to raise awareness of HIV and other STDs, Strapped Condoms collaborated with rapper Lil Wayne to simultaneously place focus on another important issue: racist police violence.
The ad features a photo of a cop harassing Lil Wayne with the tagline “Go Down Strapped.” The angles are the real killer here. That and the fact that it’s a condom ad make it look unmistakably as if Lil Wayne is engaging in a sex act with the cop.
All the positive intentions in the world didn’t stop the internet from joking ruthlessly.
2012 was a hard year for many brands and their celebrity influencers.
Popchips certainly made a bad call with a very racist commercial featuring actor Ashton Kutcher. In the commercial, Ashton is wearing a brownface and dons an offensive Indian accent, claiming to be a Bollywood producer looking for “the most delicious thing on the planet.”
This influencer marketing fail reflects mostly the poor judgment of Popchips, but I’m sure Ashton Kutcher regrets this one, too.
Nothing is sexy about Pringles, to be honest, but I’m sure Pringles would disagree. And disagree they did because Pringles used one of the sexiest men out there – Brad Pitt – to be their 80s style influencer in a commercial from 1989.
The very shirtless and very young Brad Pitt runs out of gas and Pringles chips in Miami. Thankfully, a car full of girls drives up and offers him Pringles. The day is saved.
Though not necessarily an example of a brand choosing to work with the wrong ambassador, as some of my previous examples, this commercial just makes it clear that everybody’s gotta start somewhere – even Brad Pitt.
When Ja Rule joined forces with an up-and-coming tech entrepreneur to host the most legendary and luxurious music festival ever, the internet went crazy. Everyone wanted to be there for the epic Fyre Festival.
The people behind the festival acquired 63 of the biggest influencers in the world to promote the festival. The influencers posted an orange coloured tile on their social media accounts with the hashtag #FyreFest and the first one of these posts got 300 million impressions in 24 hours.
However, as the day of the festival approached, the festival management had apparently disappeared from the surface of the earth.
False marketing in today’s world is a no-go, especially when using influencers. This case was just humiliating for each and every one of them.
In 2018, Snapchat acquired model, actor, and social media influencer Luka Sabbat to promote their new Spectacles product. Sabbat had 1.6 million followers on Instagram at that point and seemed like an obvious choice for Snapchat.
Here’s where it gets weird. Snapchat wanted Sabbat to promote the product on Instagram, not Snapchat. Even weirder and disappointing for Snapchat was that Sabbat never actually delivered. Sabbat posted the photos on Instagram, but never wore the glasses to fashion week events like Snapchat requested.
Snapchat sued him but was also exposed for trying to promote their products on their main competitor’s platform. This influencer fail ended embarrassingly for both Sabbat who lost credibility as an influencer and for Snapchat for their epic marketing fail.
This influencer marketing fail took place in Egypt where Huawei enlisted influencer Sarah Elshamy as the face of an ad promoting their newest Nova 3 phone.
The ad shows Elshamy and her co-actor taking a selfie with a Huawei phone.
But Elshamy released behind the scenes photos, which revealed that the selfie was actually taken with a professional DSLR camera. She took the photo down within 24 hours, but it was too late. The picture was out there, shared, and the internet never forgets.
In 2006, low-fat butter substitute brand I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter got The Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne, to promote their product.
The commercial features not one, but two Ozzy Osbourne’s who live together as a couple. Hm. While employing Osbourne was pretty metal of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, the combination of low-fat butter substitute and the man who once ate a bat live on-stage is an extremely bizarre combination.
Swimsuit brand Sunny Co Clothing bit off more than they could chew when they posted an Instagram post in 2017 that promised a free swimsuit to all who reposted their picture and tagged them.
You can see where this is going.
The brand had previously been using influencers to promote their swimsuits, and this was an ultimate way to actually make ambassadors out of all of their followers.
It turned out to be a massive influencer marketing fail. The brand gained 745,000 followers just from that one post and an overwhelming amount of people followed the brand’s instructions, expecting a free swimsuit.
Sunny Co Clothing could, of course, not keep good on their promise and angered both swimsuit-less followers and Instagram.
In 2018, YouTube influencer Elle Darby attempted to pay for her five-night stay at the luxurious White Moose Café in Dublin by promising social media exposure for the hotel.
Darby wrote to owner Paul Stenson: “As I was searching for places to stay, I came across your stunning hotel and would love to feature you in my YouTube videos/dedicated Instagram stories/posts to bring traffic to your hotel and recommend others to book up in return for free accommodation.”
Having none of it, Stenson replied: “If I let you stay here in return for a feature in a video, who is going to pay the staff who look after you? Who is going to pay the housekeepers who clean your room? The waiters who serve you breakfast? The receptionist who checks you in? Who is going to pay for the light and heat you use during your stay?”
Stenson ended his email reply to Darby, stating: “P.S. The answer is no,” and subsequently banned all social media influencers from his hotel. Bam.
Instagram influencer Aggie Lal (@travel_inhershoes) has nearly a million followers on Instagram. It, therefore, sounded very promising and educational when she in 2018 announced that she would run a 12-week course called “How to Grow Your Instagram.”
Lal promised to teach students how to become successful travel bloggers who could earn big money. She charged US$500 for the classes for which 380 people signed up.
However, participants told BuzzFeed that the courses fell short of expectations, even calling the whole thing a scam.
Untrustworthy influencers are the worst influencers.
Like Disick and Little Mix, supermodel Naomi Campbell showed little interest in reading through her Instagram caption when she collaborated with Adidas in 2016.
The supermodel had 2.9 million followers at the time who were left to witness the supermodel posing with a brand-new pair of Adidas shoes in an Instagram post.
The caption said: “Naomi, So nice to see you in good spirits!!! Could you put something like: Thanks to my friend @gary.aspden and all at adidas – loving these adidas 350 SPZL from the adidas Spezial range. ✊ @adidasoriginals.”
Massive fail, but nice to know the supermodel was in good spirits, at least.
Due to his, at the time, 15 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, Logan Paul was in 2017 a treasure for any brand to work with.
But when he posted a video of an encounter with a suicide victim in Japan, he was met with outrage. In the scandalous video, that apparently was intended to be humorous, Logan Paul finds the body of a suicide victim in Japan’s forest Aokigahara. Paul acts with complete disrespect and distaste towards the body, shouting “Yo, are you alive?” at it.
The video was taken down, but Logan Paul immediately lost his credibility as an influencer. Wonder what brands will work with him now.
In 2017, Dolce & Gabbana released a pair of sneakers that stirred controversy – and not just because they looked like overpriced hand-me-downs.
Instagram followers immediately reacted with righteous anger to the “I’m thin & gorgeous” scribble.
But it gets worse.
Where most brands would immediately remove the product and apologise, co-founder Stefano Gabbana instead doubled down on his design by attacking followers in the comments:
In this case, the influencer marketing fail was an inside job.
Who could forget the American college admissions scandal that revealed how wealthy California families bribed schools on behalf of their children?
Lori Loughlin of the American sitcom Full House and fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli plead guilty to bribery charges. Laughlin and Giannulli peddled some $500,000 USD in payments to ensure their daughters Olivia Jade and Isabella were accepted into the University of Southern California as athletes on the rowing team – a sport neither girls ever participated in.
Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade also just so happened to also be a lucrative influencer, working with brands like none other than Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs, and Amazon.
As soon as news broke of the scandal, major brands like Sephora dropped their relationships with Olivia Jade.
While people acknowledged Olivia Jade was more a victim in the situation, her reaction didn’t help her case. The YouTuber often posted videos discussing her resentment of higher education and how she was only happy she got into USC to party and attend football games.
Hey, at least she’s honest, right?
Do you ever get the feeling that social media contests are staged?
Well, followers of Irish beauty blogger and influencer Terrie McEvoy had the same suspicions when she teamed up with Tower Jewellers for a giveaway involving two high-end bracelets.
After Terrie announced the winners of two luxury pieces of jewellery, fans noticed something was amiss. One winner was the girlfriend of Terrie’s brother and the other winner was her best friend.
Terrie issued an apology as eloquently as she could with a quote from Rafiki, the wise monkey in Disney’s The Lion King.
Brands can easily avoid some major influencer fails simply by completing a bit of research.
Case in point: Laura Lee, a once-influential makeup YouTuber.
In 2018, tweets from Laura resurfaced and resulted in the end of her lucrative sponsorships. Turns out a 2012 Laura made quite a few exceptionally racist, and frankly played out, tasteless jokes.
Influencer marketing is a serious double-edged sword. Partnering with the right people, especially those with a professional background in PR or marketing, can drive brand recognition and engagement.
But the benefit of working with influencers also creates their downfall. An influencer’s autonomy from your brand might build trust but it also puts you at risk for some epic influencer marketing fails.
Do your research. Good luck out there!