Badvertising: Plane Wrong

World Wildlife Fund’s 9/11 ad campaign fail proves that exploiting one tragedy to draw attention to another isn’t just disrespectful—it’s bad advertising.

twin towers

In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising we look at what happens when you exploit one tragedy in order to draw attention to another one. As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

The World Wildlife Fund’s 9/11 Major Fail

Warm and fuzzy thoughts about endangered animals. A mission to save the planet. Cute little panda logo. That’s the World Wildlife Fund, right?

What probably doesn’t come to mind with the WWF is death and destruction and crassness–that is, unless you caught this ad from 2009. In an attempt to draw attention to the devastation caused by the East Asian Tsunami, the WWF recreated the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (and just in time for the 8th anniversary, too).

See the ad below? See what looks like hundreds of jets about to explode on New York City? That’s not very warm and fuzzy. WTF, WWF? The ad was picked up by The Los Angeles TimesThe New York Times and The Daily News, and once social media got a hold of it, there was an explosion, all right—one of righteous anger and moral outrage. The WWF was vilified and scandalized and called horrible names. They naturally went into all-out spin mode, calling the ad a major embarrassment that “should never have been made.”


The WWF later stated that the ad was created “on spec” by a Brazilian ad agency (DDB Brazil) for an ad competition, and that it was never-ever-never pinky-swear approved by them. “We are just utterly appalled,” said WWF spokeswoman Leslie Aun. “This ad is not something that anyone in our organization would ever have signed off on.”

Yeah, it seems totally out of place for them but, then, it turns out that statement was a fib.

Ad Age reported that the ad was presented to the WWF in Brazil in December 2008 and was approved. Oops. It even won a merit award from The One Club, a nonprofit that promotes “excellence in advertising.” Doh!

To make matters worse, they also produced a video version of the ad—whoever “they” are, for the spot was apparently created by magic as neither the ad agency, nor the WWF, claimed responsibility for it. No surprise there. Like the print version, the ad was quickly pulled and probably thrown into an active volcano. Ah, but the Internet never forgets.

Sometimes advertising needs to shock, to surprise, to overwhelm, in order to grab attention. But where is the line? The copy in the ad reads: “The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it.”

Ironically, respect was the one thing the ad was missing, and trying to draw attention to one tragedy by exploiting another one is not only disrespectful, it’s idiotic and self-defeating. I don’t know about you, but when I think about the WWF these days I have a tiny impulse to fly a jet into a panda.

Jim Yoakum

Jim Yoakum

Jim recalls a priceless piece of advice that an English teacher once gave him. Throwing a dictionary onto his desk he said, “All of the words are in there, Yoakum, just put them in the right order.” Putting the right words in the right order has been Jim’s goal ever since, and he has honed his skills over the years to include award-winning copywriting, the scripting of three produced movies, the authoring of numerous novels and non-fiction books—and even a stint as writing partners with the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame. He is also US Curator of Chapman’s archives. To make himself even more insufferable, Jim has also produced comedy CDs and DVDs. While Jim does not lament his misspent youth, playing drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he does however wish he had back all of those brain cells that he ruthlessly killed.

More from MarketSmiths


Why ‘Thought Leadership’ Content Is the Perfect Steak

original forensics: detective agency

Digital Detectives: How Cado Security Revolutionizes Cybersecurity Forensics 

Superbowl writing

10 Best Super Bowl Ads: Laughs & Love

Website design copywriting

Why Good Website Design Matters

Inc 5000 content agency

M/WBE certified enterprise.

Design by WorstOfAllDesign. Digital Strategy by MadPipe. Photography by Chellise Michael.