7 scarily bad Halloween PR campaign failures

Halloween PR campaign fails

The end of October means one thing— Halloween. Which means one thing for brands— a clamour to come up with frighteningly good ideas to secure priceless column inches and garner lucrative online attention. 

The problem is, things don’t always go to plan. For every great Halloween PR campaign and stunt we can think of plenty that wound up causing outrage and offence, or simply fell spectacularly off the mark. Here are 7 scarily bad Halloween PR campaign failures that show just how easy it is to get it all wrong. 

George, Tesco and the ‘Mental Patient’ costumes

In recent years huge steps have been taken to increase awareness around mental health issues. With this in mind when Tesco, and ASDA’s clothing arm George decided to unveil  Halloween costumes on the theme of a maniacal ‘Mental Patients’ it was never going to end well.

Subway and the fat freak out

Sandwich giant Subway thought it would be a good idea to launch a new advertising campaign in the run up to Halloween. The message was clear, and clearly inappropriate. Women should avoid fatty food in the weeks before 31st October to make sure they can fit into sexy costumes come the big day. Suffice to say it was poorly received. 

Walmart and the Fat Girl Costumes 

If Subway was bad then Walmart’s 2014 catastrophe was the stuff of nightmares. Ahead of Halloween the US supermarket behemoth introduced a new category to its website— ‘Fat Girl Costumes’. Worse still, after responding to widespread complaints the company had to deal with people pointing out other insensitive sections of its website. 

Urban Outfitters and Kent State University 

The Kent State Massacre of 1970 left four people dead after a gunman went on a campus rampage. Decades later Urban Outfitters unveiled a ‘vintage, one-of-a-kind Kent State sweatshirt’, complete with bloodstains and holes, for $129. The retailer claimed that the red marks and damaged material wasn’t referencing the tragedy but “discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.” 

Giff Gaff and the monster refugee 

We all know getting adverts banned can be beneficial for the campaign— see Iceland’s Greenpeace collaboration. Last year Giff Gaff showed us it doesn’t always work that way, though. Producing a four-minute clip in which a young girl is removed from her monster family and forced to live with humans, who then ostracise her, complaints claimed the ad could “retraumatise society’s most vulnerable people”. It never aired, and only stayed on the company’s website for a matter of days. 

The charity party and ebola 

A Halloween party in Mayfair, London, managed to put pretty much everybody off. Despite being run with the good intention of raising money for charity people were less than forgiving of the ebola virus theme. Insensitive and realistically pretty pointless, Saturday Night Ebola Fever should never have been allowed out of the ideas meeting. 

The Hong Kong marathon and social censorship 

A zombie-themed marathon through the streets of Hong Kong sounds like a fun plan. The problem being participants took the whole ‘escape from the undead’ thing a little too seriously. Scores were injured, with many blaming poor organisation. The company responsible then took to Facebook and removed all negative comments, making the situation much worse.


Need an agency to help you avoid falling foul of a PR campaign fail?
We’re happy to help.