5 of the Most Controversial Ads in Recent History

From puppy mills to beauty standards, the themes of these commercials provoked polarizing reactions.

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By Laura Entis

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The best commercials get people talking. For a company pouring money into a high-profile, expensive campaign (not to mention dropping millions for seconds of Super Bowl airtime), the worst case scenario is producing an ad so tame it immediately disappears off the public's radar.

These days, most content will offend someone, which begs the question: If an ad airs on television and no one posts outraged responses on social media, did it even happen?

That said, it is possible for companies to overstep the lines of public propriety and truly offend enough of its user base that an ad's prominence hurts rather than helps.

Related: The 5 Worst Twitter Marketing Fails of 2014

The tension between starting a conversation and uniting an audience in mutual hatred can be a difficult one to navigate. We've rounded up five ads that all, for various reasons, provoked controversial reactions. Whether they manage to pull of the ultimate marketing coup or are damaging missteps, however? You be the judge. (Although the fact that months after these ads aired we're still writing about them is noteworthy in itself.)

1. The Carl's Jr. 2015 Super Bowl Commercial

Carl's Jr. is known for its racy ads featuring scantily clad women, and this year's Super Bowl spot for the chain's all-natural burger was no exception. Featuring a nearly-naked Charlotte McKinney, the ad immediately provoked cries of sexism and a study by ad research firm Ameritest found that 52 percent of viewers surveyed found it offensive.

Which, it turns out, is the exact reaction Carl's Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder was gunning for. "If you don't complain, I go to the head of marketing and say, 'What's wrong with our ads?'" he recently said. "Those complaints aren't necessarily bad for us. What you look at is, you look at sales. And, our sales go up."

Despite the backlash, there's no denying the ad made waves: It had 2.5 billion earned media impressions before it even ran as a Super Bowl commercial. Now, it has more than 4 billion.

Puzder remains bullishly defensive of the company's advertising strategy, which relies almost exclusively on highlighting boobs and burgers. "I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it's very American," he said. "Something that other brands are having a problem doing, particularly McDonald's, is nobody knows who they are anymore. One thing about us: everybody knows who we are."

2. GoDaddy's Pulled 2015 Super Bowl Commercial

The polarizing ad – which follows a lost puppy as he finds his way home and reunites with his owner, whereupon she promptly ships him away again because she sold him on her GoDaddy website – immediately set the Internet ablaze as people took to Twitter and Facebook to express their fierce disapproval over its comedic depiction of what some interpreted to be a puppy mill. There emerged a swift backlash to the backlash, in which other commentators took offense that anyone was offended in the first place. Animal rights activists joined the fray, including advocate Helena Yurcho, who launched a Change.org petition calling for the ad to be pulled.

Related: Has GoDaddy Already Won the Super Bowl?

It was. So quickly and seamlessly, in fact, that the whole debacle looked suspiciously like a carefully orchestrated marketing stunt. By pulling the ad, GoDaddy appeased its critics. And miraculously, it had an alternative ad waiting in the wings that ran on game day. Meanwhile, the original ad racked up views online as media outlets continued (and continue still, clearly) to document the controversy.

3. Dove's 'Choose Beautiful' Campaign

Part of Dove's divisive but incredibly successful 'Movement for Self-Esteem, the 'Choose Beautiful' ad campaign urges women everywhere to break free from society's confining standards of beauty and declare to the world that they are beautiful.

In the video, women in different cities are asked to walk through either a door labeled "beautiful" or one labeled "average." Most women pick the latter, until they recognize that they can "choose beautiful" for themselves, and begin walking through the first door with confidence.

The message, while embraced by some viewers and media outlets as a lesson in female empowerment, struck others as patronizing and manipulative, ultimately reinforcing the rigid standards it ostensibly works to tear down.

If a mark of a good ad is that it starts conversation, Dove's 'Choose Beautiful' Campaign was a runaway success. The video sparked hundreds of think pieces, comment wars and heated Twitter exchanges, and the resignation of one Buzzfeed editor.

4. Nationwide's 2015 Super Bowl Commercial

"I'll never learn to ride a bike or get cooties," a little boy says to the camera in a Nationwide commercial that aired during this year's Super Bowl. "I'll never learn to fly or travel the world with my best friend."

Related: New Dove Campaign Aims to Cleanse Twitter of Rampant Trolling and Hate-Speech

The boy goes on to list other things he'll never do, including getting married, because he has died in a home accident. It's a gut-wrenching reveal, after which a narrator, in a voice over, delivers the line: "At Nationwide, we believe in protecting what matters most — your kids."

The 45-second spot produced an immediate backlash on social media; many viewers felt that the Super Bowl was too lighthearted a venue for such a starkly depressing message.

While the ad certainly got people talking, it's debatable whether or not it can be labeled a success. Of the more than 238,000 public social media mentions about Nationwide on Super Bowl Sunday, more than 64 percent were negative according to data from Amobee Brand Intelligence.

5. McDonald's 'Carry On' Campaign

The campaign, which featured McDonald's signs referencing public tragedies including 9/11 and the Boston Marthon bombings along with happier, more personal events such as birthday parties and anniversaries set to a choral version of Fun's "Carry On," was clearly meant to depict the fast-food giant as an integral part of local communities across America.

For the most part, however, viewers' hearts remained decidedly unwarmed by the message. Barring a few supportive tweets, the reaction on social media after the ad aired during the Golden Globes was negative.

The company responded to the backlash in a statement, which read in part: "We've seen some strong praise and some negative comments. We expect that, and we welcome it. We'll continue to challenge ourselves to push boundaries in connecting with our customers."

Related: 5 Uncomfortable Questions Asked at McDonald's Company Shareholders' Meeting

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for Fortune.com's Venture section.

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