Badvertising: Uncle Sam Says You’re Unattractive & Gullible

When the US Bureau of Consular Affairs tweeted a travel “safety” trip implying that U.S. travelers are unattractive and therefore likely to get scammed, people were not amused. Here's how a poor attempt at humor can go awry.

In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising, we look at the time the United States government told its citizens that they were unattractive, dumb, and would not find romance on vacation. As usual, do not try this at home!

The US Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Ugly Tweet

Never before, in the course of trying to be helpful, has the road to hell been paved with such good intentions. In March of 2016, The Bureau of Consular Affairs sent a tweet that, they hoped, would alert United States citizens about the hazards of traveling abroad in summer—you know, like falling for scams or being robbed.

So, they tweeted this PSA:

A misjudged tweet by the US State Department of Travel


Wow. That’s so harsh it could almost be a “yo mama” joke: “Your mama’s so ugly, even the State Department thinks she should stay home!” Not only was the Bureau of Consular Affairs (the arm of the State Department that sent the tweet) judging your looks, it was also implying that you were too dumb to see that your sweet summer romance was probably a scam… and that you’d most likely be robbed, to boot.

Needless to say, the tweet exploded online with reactions ranging from outrage to outrage.

The State Department quickly pulled the tweet, then offered a two-part apology.

Tone & Context

You can’t blame the State Department for wanting to “relate to the kids,” and taking a more relaxed, light-hearted, approach to relaying safety tips is one way to do that. But when copywriting, it’s important to remember that tone and context always matter.

We, as a society, have adopted less formal ways of communicating, especially online. While a touch of well-placed humor is always welcome, copywriters have to decide if such a tone matches the context of the project. That’s true whether you’re doing website copywriting, website content, blog content, or a simple PSA.

In this instance, the government’s attempt to be funny fell flat because it made light of a serious subject and the humor was insulting.

Always consider tone and context. Ask yourself: does the humor benefit your client, or are you just trying to be funny?

A misjudged advertisement for a funeral parlor, implying an old woman will die soon.




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.

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