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Naughty list: 2018 in PR, marketing and comms failures

It has been the worst of years. It has been the best of years. Really it all depends on the experience of your brand or agency.

They say people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and tempting fate is a fool’s game. Panic not, then— given Team Smoking Gun has scooped successive industry awards during 2018, and gleaned incredible coverage for clients, it seems we’re well placed to take a sideways glance at the worst decisions, comments and controversies in the PR, marketing, advertising and comms sectors over the last 12 months.

Brace yourselves, then, some of this is pretty painful…



Apple ‘confesses’ its policy of actively slowing down old iPhone models, citing improved battery life as the rationale.

Carillion, the UK’s second-largest construction firm, collapses, placing countless public and private sector projects in jeopardy, with poor financial management and enormous executive bonuses doing the sector’s reputation for transparency no end of damage.

The charitable sector suffers the first of several major blows as London’s richest men take misogyny to another level at the President’s Club fundraising dinner, pouring kerosine on the #metoo fire.



KFC’s dancing chicken advert is labelled the most controversial and complained about UK commercial from 2017’s crop.

PepsiCo completely forgets what year it is and launches Lady Doritos.

Oxfam has to combat reports of sexual harassment, solicitation and widespread abuses of power during humanitarian efforts in Haiti, Chad and other countries.

Newsquest, the UK’s second-largest local and regional publishing house, is exposed for offering a cash reward to the newspaper team using the most unpaid writers and photographers.



Billions are wiped off the value of Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, whereby the data from around 50million accounts was illegally shared with the UK-based research company. Cambridge Analytica would cease trading by early May.



BBC producers admit to staging a scene featuring a Papua New Guinea tribe in the documentary Human Earth.


ITV’s Good Morning Britain host, Kate Garraway, goes live on camera while still wearing a hair roller. Stylists take note.

One of the UK’s leading online stations, Radar Radio, goes offline following allegations of sexual harassment, exploitation, racism and a ‘toxic culture’ at the organisation.



Kansas City’s marketing team managed to mess up a sign-based campaign, big time.

Retail giant Marks & Spencer declines a Channel 4 TV interview about rising losses because its customer base ‘doesn’t match’ the audience of one of Britain’s most widely-viewed newsrooms.


Northern Rail goes from bad to worse thanks to a problematic emergency timetable— on Friday 1st June 2018, for example, 41% of services are cancelled before midday.


IHOP, AKA International House of Pancakes, changes its name to IHOB, AKA International House of Burgers, to advertise its new line of meat patties, leading to confusion and then mocking across the US as nobody knows if the change is real or a simple stunt.



1,000 victims of the tragic 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting face legal battles against hotel giant MGM Resorts as the company looks to take action before the 1,000 victims begin filing suits against it. Lawyers brand the move ‘verging on unethical’.


Washington D.C. chain, Z  Burger, launches a new campaign against McDonalds, using the image of an acclaimed US photo journalist moments before he was beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria.



Google confirms it is developing a top secret news source and search engine for China, which will adhere to strict censorship laws. An open letter from staff follows demanding an explanation and cessation.


Internet service provider Verizon issues an apology for data-throttling fire fighters as their mobile web usage spiked while battling wild blazes across California earlier in the summer,.


Amazon is accused of starting a ‘Twitter army’ of bots, posing as staff at its product dispatch centres, in a bid to convince the public employees are happy. Employees try to deny the situation, but mud sticks. 



Manchester’s bad name returns as cycle-sharing scheme Mobike cancels its pilot scheme due to the high level of thefts and vandalism.


Fashion brand Revolve uses the worst online abuse received by female celebrities for a new line of clothing, but forgets to explain the context of the hateful messages.


China Eastern Airlines sacks a member of cabin crew after she accepted her boyfriend’s romantic, mile-high proposal while on shift.



US President Donald Trump steps onto Air Force One, with toilet paper stuck to his shoe.

Topshop’s flagship London Oxford Street store shuts down a popup stand for the book Feminists Don’t Wear Pink, allegedly on the request of owner Sir Philip Green. By the end of the month he is exposed as having sexually molested female staff.


Online publishing and social behemoth UNILAD hits the rocks with millions owed to creditors. Rival brand LAD Bible eventually steps in and buys the business wholesale.



Lingerie and underwear titan Victoria’s Secret is forced to apologise after CMO Ed Razek tells that transexuals do not fit the fantasy the brand sells.


Sark Electricity, which powers the Channel Island of Sark, threatens to pull the plug completely if it is forced to reduce prices after a ruling decided tariffs were too high.



O2 customers in the UK find themselves with no service whatsoever as a network outage takes an entire day to rectify.


French President Emmanuel Macron’s comms team allow a photo of him sat at a lavish gilded table to be used by the press while Paris burns amid cost of living protests.

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