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The Single Worst Dot-Com Ad Revisited


Ten years later, it's still appalling.

At the height of the tech bubble in 1999, advertising analysts estimate that dot-com companies spent $1.09 on marketing for every $1 of revenue.

Viewers were treated to the good -- like a series of hysterical commercials now-shuttered agency Cliff Freeman & Partners turned out for e-tailer (which was ultimately bought by Fry's):

And to the bad -- like this spot for online wedding-invitation site, which cost the company $4 million in Super Bowl airtime, overlooking the fact that an almost immeasurably miniscule percentage of their demographic watches football:

And to the, well, very ugly.

Take a look at the following commercial, which ran during the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXIII, in which the Denver Broncos defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19 -- and Birmingham, Alabama's Just for Feet ( began its own death spiral, thanks to this:

No, your eyes didn't just deceive you. In the spot, a barefoot Kenyan runner is hunted by a Humvee full of white men, drugged, and while unconscious, is fitted with a pair of sneakers.

Yes, he did wake up screaming, desperately trying to get the shoes off his feet.

It cost Just for Feet $7 million, all told, and more importantly, it cost the company its reputation.

Ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi created the commercial, convincing Just for Feet CEO Harold Ruttenberg that the way to capture new customers was to "cut through the clutter" with "edgy, hip" advertising.

What they gave him was described as "appallingly insensitive" by Stuart Elliott of the New York Times, "neo-colonialist ... culturally imperialist, and probably racist," by Bob Garfield of Advertising Age, who went on to ask, "Have these people lost their minds?" and The Des Moines Register suggested Just for Feet change its name to Just for Racists.

That March, Ruttenberg sued Saatchi for $10 million, arguing the agency was so irresponsible, the Just for Feet commercial constituted advertising malpractice.

"Saatchi & Saatchi assured Just for Feet that the commercial Saatchi conceived and produced would be well received by the public," read the legal complaint.

"Instead, as a direct consequence of Saatchi's appallingly unacceptable and shockingly unprofessional performance, Just for Feet's favorable reputation has come under attack, its reputation has suffered, and it has been subjected to the entirely unfounded and unintended public perception that it is a racist or racially insensitive company."

Just for Feet filed for bankruptcy later that year.

Today's tech advertising, with a few exceptions, is decidedly more conservative. Gone are the days of a brand simply trying to "out-weird" the next guy.

Until the next bubble.
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