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Bumble, Apple, and the art of the advertising apology

The five types of advertising apologies, explained.

Bumble, Apple, and the art of the advertising apology
[Source photo: FC]

When Bumble issued a lengthy apology for a series of anti-celibacy billboards last week, it joined a long and storied list of brands forced to apologize for an advertising misstep.

The emergence of the brand ad apology coincided with the rise of social media. Brands and marketers hailed this new era as a major shift from one-way communication with consumers to an ongoing two-way conversation. Unfortunately for some brands, that meant they heard about their missteps faster and louder than ever before.

A 2022 study from Forrester found that 41% of consumers would return to a brand that concedes to making a mistake and apologizes for it. That’s why Bumble decided to go the full mea culpa route.

Over the past decade, a few different genres of ad apologies have emerged.


Last week, Bumble posted a (now deleted) photo of a neon-yellow billboard emblazoned with the words, “You know full well a vow of celibacy is not the answer.” The billboard and a few more like it were in the Los Angeles area, and almost immediately drew criticism.

Either way, Bumble had to do something, and as brand apologies go, it’s a pretty good one. Here’s why, in five steps:

  1. It was quick, coming just a few days after the backlash began.
  2. It started with an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing: “We made a mistake.”
  3. It then outlined the details of why it was a mistake.
  4. It declared next steps to make the apology mean something. In this case, removing the ads immediately and making donations to the National Domestic Violence hotline and other organizations that support women affected by abuse. It’s also offering these organizations the billboard space now open from the removed ads.
  5. And finally, it asked its audience to continue to provide feedback.

The Bumble apology came less than a week after Apple issued an apology of its own. Albeit much more low key, Apple’s VP of marketing Tor Myhren told AdAge, “We missed the mark with this video, and we’re sorry.”

Where do the Bumble and Apple statements fit among other ad apologies? To my unscientific eye, there are five types of advertising apologies:


Back in 2020, Volkswagen apologized for an Instagram ad that showed a giant white hand, poking and flicking a Black man away from a car, while a laugh track rolled in the background. In a statement, Volkswagen board member Jurgen Stackmann said, “We posted a racist advertising video on Volkswagen’s Instagram channel. We understand the public outrage at this. Because we’re horrified, too. We’re ashamed of it and cannot explain how it came about.”

Just not horrified enough to hold anyone really accountable. Saying sorry is quite literally the least a brand can do, but in many of these cases there’s no indication of a change of thinking—or in VW’s case, leadership—to ensure it won’t happen again.


This is when a brand creates something that was clearly designed to provoke, but then quickly backtracks when the reaction is overwhelmingly negative.

Contestants in this category include the 2022 Balenciaga BDSM teddy bear fiasco and the time, in 2013, when Ford apologized for an ad in India featuring then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in a car with three women tied up in the trunk.

These apologies are overshadowed by just how monumentally idiotic the original idea and ad execution were. These apologies also fuel the sneaking suspicion that another batsh*t offensive ad could soon darken the horizon.


This is a classic category in which the apology isn’t really for the work, but for your reaction to it.

Back in 2007, General Motors’ Super Bowl ad featured an assembly-line robot that gets fired after making a mistake. The bot sadly wanders the city until it can’t take it anymore and jumps off a bridge. It turns out to have been just a nightmare—but somehow, using potential robot suicide to sell cars turned into an actual nightmare for the brand.

After a significant backlash, GM issued a statement that wasn’t quite an apology, but felt somewhat remorseful for how the ad made people feel. “Our robot ad is a story of GM’s commitment to quality,” a spokesperson said. “That was the predominant impression by previewers of the ad. It is not intended to offend anyone. Advertising during the Super Bowl brings instant critiques, both positive and negative.”

After a while, and meeting with suicide prevention organizations, the company eventually decided to create an alternate version of the spot.


The “sorry not sorry” approach isn’t really an apology, but rather a statement that somehow acknowledges the situation without going so far as to say sorry. Peloton’s 2019 holiday ad sparked massive amounts of backlash and mockery for depicting a man gifting his wife an exercise bike for Christmas. The brand issued a statement:

“Our holiday spot was created to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey. While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by—and grateful for—the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate.”

It’s the kind of brand statement most people forget a lot faster than, say, Ryan Reynolds’ response ad for Aviation Gin, featuring the woman from the Peloton spot.


This is where both Bumble and Apple land in their own way. Obviously, any apology from a brand is met with skepticism. No one really knows if it’s an actual apology or a strategy to avoid further criticism, but either way this is clearly the best route a brand can take that quickly combines apology for what happened, acknowledgement of why it was a mistake, and action to come to help make it right.

And if all else fails, you can be like Skittles and offer up 130,880 individual apologies.

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Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. More

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