List of your most disastrous campaign own goals – more please!

I’m teaching a course on activism at the LSE and one of my students, Gaia Frazao-Nery, asked me a disarmingly

Bic Pens for Women – a very silly idea

simple question – can you give us some examples of advocacy campaigns that have achieved the opposite of what they wanted? I was stumped, so threw myself on the mercy of twitter. So far, I haven’t quite got the perfect example(s), but an interesting typology of failure is emerging:

Dumb Government Messaging

D.A.R.E. in the States. Drugs awareness programme aimed at teens. Best way to open kids up to all of the possibilities out there. Also set up false equivalence between things like tobacco & heroin (if my parents smoke cigarettes that’s as bad as me doing coke, right?).’ [Heather Marquette]

‘A lot of anti-drug campaigns that focus on scare tactics also have negative effects’ [Rick Bartoldus]

Scared straight in the USA’ [Rick Bartoldus]

HIV/AIDs awareness campaigns seem to have been particularly prone to own goals:

‘HIV/AIDS campaign in Botswana in 1980s/1990s, used ABC model of Uganda but paid little attention to context. Condom promotion was equated to immorality. Public campaigns were treated with scepticism. Aids became known as the ‘radio disease’. Prevalence rates skyrocketed.’ [Ben Ramalingam]

Some anti-HIV campaigns play up the likelihood of getting HIV by so much, that people just begun to assume that getting HIV is inevitable – so they stop protecting themselves. [Rick Bartoldus].

Removing things makes people value them (You dunno what you got til it’s gone – Joni Mitchell)

‘US Republicans attempting to dismantle Obamacare in 2017 – leading to huge voter outrage (including amongst rural Republican voters) over fact that people with pre-existing conditions could be denied coverage- became major campaign topic in the midterms where republicans lost big.’ [Tom Wildman]

Bad Aid Interventions:

‘Malaria eradication campaign of 1960s and 1970s didn’t take into account evolution of resistance, based on DDT as silver bullet, led to re-emergence of malaria’ [Ben Ramalingam]

Stupid Commercials:

‘Launching a new mobile telephone network in Northern Ireland with the ‘The future is bright, the future is Orange’ [Nicholas Colloff]

Bics pens for women, a huge fail [Rince This]

(Then there’s the Fiat Nova’s bafflingly poor sales record in Latin America. (No va = ‘doesn’t work’ in Spanish)…’

Accidentally giving Oxygen to your enemy:

‘The protest against Uber by London cabbies in 2014. By giving Uber tons of free publicity, led to loads of new customers downloading it. Broader lessons there about audience targeting and salience raising?’ [Paul Skidmore]

Encouraging participation and then regretting it:

Take a bow, Boaty McBoatface

Bad Politics:

Advocacy by international governments and others for democracy in Rwanda – during a civil war, no less – most likely had the opposite effect, one would think.[Phil Vernon] (I think this could be extended to all the push for early elections, when that destabilizes countries recovering from conflict – Paul Collier’s work is great on this)

Stuff you agree to when you think you’re never going to have to act on it:

‘Brexit. Conservatives didn’t think they were gonna win a majority and the lib dems would stop them having to commit to a referendum promise. They did win, they did get a referendum and …’ [Steph Leonard]

Financial Incentives that backfire:

‘There was that rat control program that led to people breeding more rats so they could hand them in and get paid :-).’ [Mark Tiele Westra]

You might be thinking of cobras in British colonial India [Tim Krap]

Special Mentions for:

0.7: ‘Not clear cut, but what about the 0.7 law campaign? Was supposed to cement x-party consensus, but has resulted in aid/devt becoming a lightning rod for r. wing criticism’ [Chris Jordan]

Then there’s this gem from Scott Guggenheim: ‘I have one from my youth as a World Banker. We were working on a large dam in Central Mexico. My area was dialogue with communities over a resettlement plan, but while at it, the team environmentalists and I had the very clever idea of a community environmental preservation campaign for one of the rare endemic cactus species. So we worked with the local elementary schools to make big, beautiful posters, launch class discussions, and promote little field trips to educate the children on how protect their environmental heritage.

Sure enough, not only was our progressive idea received with enthusiasm by the neighboring communities, but they were so thrilled to see the World Bank helping them protect their obviously valuable cactuses that they dug up all of the remaining plants to sell by the roadside before the foreign collectors could come down and seize them. Pretty much, ahem, none were left. Que pena!

One good rule for development that you can always count on is that no good intention will be left unpunished.’

And a couple that I just didn’t get:

‘Oscar voters for Moonlight’ [Faye Leone]

‘Australian marriage equality plebiscite?’ [Hugo Temby]

My overall verdict is ‘close, but no cigar’ – I still want some more examples of civil society/NGO advocacy campaigns that clearly backfired. Not ones that have no/little impact (eg Kony 2012), but actually backfire. Maybe I haven’t framed the question right. More suggestions please – and hurry up – I promised Gaia a response at the next class, which is on Friday.

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7 Responses to “List of your most disastrous campaign own goals – more please!”
  1. Lucia

    0.7% is an interesting case study. Agree with Chris Jordan’s analysis on the unintended political fallout. But let’s not forget that campaigners for 0.7 also envisaged that the aid agenda of the time would endure. That would mean lots of aid money to public services, spent according to aid fx principles, supporting the development of effective states (a broadly socialist agenda). Well, some of that happened, but we also have billions of pounds going to a Prosperity Fund, to CDC, to an Economic Development Strategy which favours building the domestic private sector (fine), working with UK private contractors (um), and leveraging involvement of multinationals for good (cough). We also have successive Tory SoSs (and Boris) loudly proclaiming their intent to align aid with ‘the national interest’ – whatever that is.

  2. Pamela White

    These are great! Thanks a lot.

    You mentioned Nova’s bafflingly poor sales record in Latin America. (No va = ‘doesn’t work’ in Spanish)…

    I remember well the hilarity in Central America, when the Pajero pick-ups were released – ‘pajero’ was colloquially used for ‘wanker’ – so it seemed perfect!

  3. mathieu


    Before a constitutional reform in the Dominican Republic (2008?), a group of feminist CSOs launched a campaign to ask for the legalization of abortion. Several religious organizations and churches countered the campaign with their own campaign, first to ensure that the law would stay the same but then to ask for the ban on abortion to be included in the constitution. As a result of the campaign, the ban on abortion went from a law to an article of the constitution. Probably a good case study there if you can find some documentation.

  4. Karen

    A classic example is what’s known as the “Archie Bunker effect.” The 1970s American sitcom “All in the Family” was groundbreaking in the way it addressed social issues–racism, sexism, classism, politics, almost any social issue you can imagine. The main character, Archie Bunker, was a World War II vet, a Republican, a blue-collar worker in Queens, NY who was unapologetically bigoted against anyone who wasn’t a white, U.S.-born, heterosexual Christian (I may have missed a couple of identity attributes in both descriptions, but you get the idea). His daughter, Gloria, and son-in-law, Mike, lived with them and served as liberal foils to his conservative persona. It debuted in 1971, and the creator, Norman Lear, intended for Archie to be seen as an out-of-date buffoon whose ideas were clearly on the way out as the 60s ended (He also took inspiration from the British sitcom “Till Death Do Us Part.”) But to the many viewers who agreed with Archie, he became a working-class hero, and it reinforced their beliefs. The writing was so good, and Carroll O’Connor’s portrayal of Archie was so real, that you really cared about him, even if you disapproved of almost everything he said.

    (The long-term effects are still being debated:

    I hadn’t thought about this for a long time, but of course this is exactly the divide we see in the U.S. now.

    The theme song was “Those Were the Days.”

    More links:

  5. What about the 10:10 campaign video that showed “scenes in which a variety of men, women and children in every-day situations are graphically blown to pieces for failing to be sufficiently enthusiastic about the 10:10 campaign to reduce CO2 emissions”?

    It was so badly received that it was withdrawn almost immediately – but the damage was done. Charity and corporate partners pulled out, and the 10:10 campaign / organisation never recovered the momentum it had developed. More here: