Just turn on the TV or flip open a magazine and two advertising techniques are probably going to jump out at you: sex and celebrity endorsement. Many of the banned commercials on this list are a combination of both, resulting in a 30 to 60-second product that was deemed inappropriate for viewers.
There are a few anomalies on this list, commercials banned for political or otherwise indiscernible reasons, but most of them involve celebrities making pouty faces, flaunting cleavage or simply being too sexy for TV to handle. These celebrity endorsements never aired but ended up finding homes online — and they’re some of the top banned commercials from TV.
10 – Beyonce (Heat, 2010)
The only reason this commercial isn’t higher on this list is that it was only banned in the UK, and even then only during the daytime. They did consider this appropriate for late-night viewers, apparently. Let’s face it: it’s just Beyonce being herself. The ad is for her then-new perfume, Heat, and it plays off the theme in every way possible; she’s singing one of the hottest songs of all time (literally and figuratively), draped in a slinky red dress, and lacquered in a permanent sweaty sheen. The ad agency defended her performance, saying it showed off her “sexy-chic style.” It may not be Beyonce’s best commercial of all time, but it’s up there.
9 – Eva Mendes (Calvin Clein, 2008)
At first glance, this ad seems far less risque than Beyonce’s aforementioned performance, yet American TV only allowed a censored version to run. It’s in black and white, only 30 seconds long, and most of the shots of Mendes are ambiguously sexy, although she’s obviously nude. But look a bit closer. No, you’re not imagining things: Mendes flashes a nipple. The commercial was quickly banned, and a censored, nipple-less version made the cut. So for those of you who caught this ad when it originally aired, yes, you were seriously missing out.
8 – Joaquin Phoenix (PETA, 2013)
This one’s an anomaly for two reasons: it was specifically banned from airing during the Oscars, not altogether, and it isn’t sexy in the least (unless an asphyxiated Joaquin Phoenix is a secret fantasy of yours; in that case, it’s very sexy indeed). This isn’t Phoenix’s only endorsement of the ever-controversial PETA, but apparently the Oscar deciders didn’t think viewers would like being guilt-tripped over consuming fish during the most star-studded night of the year. The ad really doesn’t require much of an explanation — it’s literally Phoenix underwater and his voiceover comparing drowning to the cruelty humans inflict on fish. It was banned because of the implications behind the ad’s message, but for us viewers, the commercial’s melodramatic nature would have backfired on Oscar night anyway; it is accidentally funny, hardly the effect PETA intended.
7 – Kiera Knightley (Chanel, 2013)
Another perfume commercial banned in the UK (apparently the Brits have a hard time accepting this inherent connection that advertisers make between scent and sexuality). It’s a pretty standard commercial set-up: Half-naked woman puts on perfume; woman bikes through town in skin-tight leather suit; man falls for woman, presumably because she smells so good; woman escapes out window. The most we see of Knightley is her bare shoulders and some really sultry facial expressions, but that was apparently enough for the censorship board to respond with a resounding “no.”
6 – Bruce Willis (Sky Broadband, 2013)
Yet another commercial banned by the UK, this one has America’s favorite bald action star seeking a new broadband service so he can watch his films “big,” the way they’re meant to be viewed. The ad was banned for boring technical reasons, nothing political or racy (apparently the ad was deemed misleading for mentioning its pricing details in tiny print instead of using a voice over). It’s a shame it was banned, because it might have become one of the best commercials of the year. After all, who doesn’t get a teensy bit hot and bothered while listening to Willis talk about helicopters and gunfire?
5 – Ashton Kutcher (Popchips, 2012)
Making fun of hippies? Hilarious. Mocking hillbillies? Even better. Portraying a Bollywood producer, complete with brown face, traditional clothes and an Indian accent? Not so much. The commercial highlights Kutcher portraying four radically different, quirky bachelors, each trying to find his ideal woman through a dating service. The actor was bombarded with accusations of racism for his characterization of Raj, the painfully stereotyped Indian bachelor. After the commercial was banned, it reappeared without Raj — but it certainly didn’t help Kutcher’s public reputation.
4 – Kiera Knightley (Cut, 2009)
The only celeb to appear twice on this list, Knightley’s second commercial was banned for entirely different reasons, although once again, it was the Brits who turned it down. This was an anti-domestic abuse campaign considered too violent for the public, although it’s become a massive hit online. To give the UK some credit, this is a particularly graphic and unsettling ad, and it stands to reason that families might not want their kids watching a well-known movie star get brutally beaten by her husband during commercial breaks. Advocates for the commercial say it sends an important, albeit painful, message to audiences.
3 – Pam Anderson (Crazy Domains, 2013)
You’d think a commercial starring one of America’s bustiest sex icons would be banned for being too sexy, and yes, Anderson definitely shows some skin in this ad. But the British media denounced this commercial (again) not because it was simply too risqué, but because it was deemed “degrading toward women.” It’s essentially about a guy in a business meeting and his explicit fantasy about Anderson’s secretary character — which consists of her and another woman smothering each other in cream. Some people found the commercial funny, even one of the best banned ads of the year, while others denounced it for the negative messages it sends about women and sexuality.
2 – Kate Upton (Zoo York, 2012)
The Sports Illustrated cover girl has done her share of controversial commercials, all of which feature her performing ordinary tasks that somehow end up verging on pornographic. But this one wasn’t banned because Upton was too sexy for TV, or even because it was so crude (it’s pretty common knowledge that the word c@!#sucker isn’t appropriate for general audiences). It was banned because of the way the main characters (two cockroaches) describe a skateboarder using language that suspiciously relates to Upton’s character, who is performing a seductive jogging routine nearby. It’s essentially a series of double entendres, like “grind” and “wax,” that were considered too much for television.
1 – The cast of “Friends” (NBC 1994)
Strange as it may seem, there was a time when a sitcom about six friends in New York City was completely unheard of. Yes, when the show aired, NBC needed to find a way to market it appropriately, and someone decided the most effective ad campaign would be to simply strip the cast down to their underwear and hope viewers would tune in. Monica sums it up pretty nicely, in fact: “This is a shameless, exploitive attempt to get people to watch our show.” It never aired, but, it remains one of the best banned commercials of all time.
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