BBC Capital

Open mouth, insert foot: 8 gaffes that fuelled fury

  • When words do damage...

    When it comes to a company's reputation, sometimes top executives are their own worst enemy.

    Over the past few years, a slew of verbal gaffes have sent even the most brilliant PR teams scrambling to control the damage. Poorly considered statements often hurt the value of the company’s stock as customers stage boycotts and other brands gleefully swoop in to capitalize on their competitor's self-inflicted woes.

    The latest: the new CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, who has apologised after suggesting women shouldn’t ask for a raise while speaking at a conference to celebrate women in technology. Nadella, who succeeded Steve Ballmer in February 2014, has since called his statement “completely wrong”, but his retraction has done little to stem the fury of the media and women in technology alike.

    He joins these seven other executives, some of the worst offenders when it comes to shooting themselves in the proverbial ‘good business’ foot with comments or actions that have been perceived as racist, sexist or simply insensitive to broad swaths of people.

    Scroll through the images above to see their gaffes. (This story has been updated from a previous version.)


  • Microsoft: Karma Chameleon

    Though Microsoft isn’t particularly well-known for diversity in the office — a recent self-reported study shows the tech behemoth is more than 70% male and 60% white — CEO Satya Nadella told an audience of women gathered to celebrate female accomplishment in technology to not ask for a pay raise, but instead have “faith in the system” for a promotion when the time was right.

    “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along,” Nadella told the women gathered for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

    “That’s good karma. It’ll come back because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person I want to trust,” he continued.

    Nadella’s interviewer at the conference, Maria Klawe, who is president of Harvey Mudd College and a Microsoft director, immediately took issue with Nadella’s stance, stating women should practise asking for the raise they want. Nevertheless, Nadella’s statement quickly went viral online, where commentators lambasted his remarks. “‘I became CEO by patiently waiting and having faith in the system.’ Said no CEO ever,” wrote Twitter user @Brielrene. BBC Capital columnist Lucy Marcus also weighed in: “Karma doesn’t pay the bills”, she wrote.

    As fury over his “karma” remarks grew, Nadella changed his colours. In a public memo to employees, the CEO said he answered the question “completely wrong” and that women who believe they deserve a raise “should just ask”.


  • Firefox: The statement that crashed browsers

    Best known for its Firefox internet browser, Mozilla’s CEO, Brendan Eich, stepped down after only a month in the position once same-sex marriage activists got wind of his previous opposition to gay marriage in the US. Eich, who co-founded Mozilla, donated $1,000 in support of Californian anti-gay marriage law Proposition 8 in 2008.

    The law, which was initially passed, was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 2013. Gay marriage supporters swiftly began protesting his appointment on Facebook and Twitter. Even some of Mozilla’s own tweeted their dissatisfaction, with employees including Chris McAvoy and Kat Braybrooke tweeting, “I'm an employee of @mozilla and I'm asking @BrendanEich to step down as CEO”.

    But perhaps the most damaging moment came when one of the most popular free online dating sites in the US with about 30 million active users, OkCupid, joined the protest. Users who visited the site using a Firefox browser were greeted with a message reading: "Hello there, Mozilla Firefox user. Pardon this interruption of your OkCupid experience. Mozilla's new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples. We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid."

    Even as Eich stepped down as CEO, some were protesting the protest, calling Eich a “free speech martyr”. US writer and commentator Andrew Sullivan, who is himself gay, said, “When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line… This is the definition of intolerance.”

    (AP/Getty Images)

  • Lululemon: Comments on body size sour shoppers

    Dennis “Chip” Wilson, the founder of yoga clothing retailer Lululemon, resigned as chairman on 9 December after comments that appeared to blame “see-through pants” on overweight women, rather than the company’s design. Its upscale yoga pants cost between about $80 and $110.

    Some women's bodies "just don't actually work'' for Lululemon trousers, Wilson told Bloomberg TV in November.

    In March, Lululemon had to withdraw a range of black yoga trousers from shops after complaints about see-through fabric. The company said there was an unacceptable “level of sheerness.” Lululemon shares fell almost 5% after the company announced its decision to pull the trousers.

    He apologised in a video posted to YouTube in November. “I’m really sad,” he said. “I’m sad for the repercussions of my actions… I take responsibility for all that has occurred.”

    But the damage was done. Lululemon was flamed on Twitter and in the media and at least one Wall Street analyst, from Sterne Agee, downgraded the stock to “underperform” following the comments and the publicity — and online petition for a more sincere apology — that followed.

    (Getty, BBC News)

  • Barilla: In hot water

    The CEO of international pasta brand Barilla, Guido Barilla, sparked the ire of gays and lesbians worldwide when he told an Italian radio station his company would never consider using a gay family in its advertisements.

    “I would never do [a commercial] with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don’t agree with them,” Barilla said. “Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role.”

    The CEO also said that if homosexuals “like our pasta and our advertising, they’ll eat our pasta, if they don’t like it then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand”. Fettuccine-loving supporters of gay and lesbian rights took Guido Barilla to task for his comments, boycotting the products faster than one could say “Al dente”! Within hours of the broadcast, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.

    The backlash led Guido Barilla to issue an apology: “I apologise if my words generated misunderstandings or arguments, or if they offended the sensibilities of some people.”

    But rival pasta maker Bertolli may have been the big winner when it cooked up a far more brilliant comeback, posting a hastily put-together ad featuring two anthropomorphized ziti entangled in an enthusiastic dance, alongside two bowtie pastas who seem poised to join the fun.


  • Abercrombie & Fitch: A fitting controversy

    A brand long associated with courting controversy for (among other things) thong underwear in kids’ sizes and risque T-shirt logos, American clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch found itself in perhaps the biggest kerfluffle yet after a series of quotes from CEO Mike Jeffries came back to haunt the clothier.

    The quotes, which were culled from a 2006 Salon article with the then 61-year-old CEO, were convenient ammunition for a Business Insider article succinctly titled “Abercrombie Wants Thin Customers”. The piece examined why the retailer does not offer XL or XXL sizes — and why the largest women’s pants are size 10 (a UK 12).

    “We want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that,” Jeffries was re-quoted as saying. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids… a lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes] and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

    Jeffries’ resurrected quotes spurred a viral backlash. The same young, hip demographic the brand so doggedly pursues started to give unworn Abercrombie items to the homeless. “Fitch the Homeless,” a popular YouTube video intoned. “Together, we can make Abercrombie & Fitch the world’s No. 1 brand of homeless apparel.”

    In May 2013 Jeffries issued a statement on Facebook saying, in part, “I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense.” Roundly criticised as a “semi-apology”, the brand issued yet another mea culpa. It has also spearheaded an anti-bullying campaign – although, as Salon wryly noted, the famously snug-fitting clothes still don’t come in plus-sizes.


  • BP: The sail that launched a thousand criticisms

    When BP CEO Tony Hayward took a leisurely yacht sail off England’s Isle of Wight in the midst of the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the world took notice — and even the White House spoke up.

    Rahm Emanuel, who was then the White House Chief of Staff, said the decision to take the $270,000 vessel out on the water was “just part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes” for the brand.

    The sail brought to mind something Hayward had said weeks earlier that upset people in the Gulf Coast who were reeling from the spill. His words: “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

    (Hayward later apologised for the comment, calling it “hurtful” and “thoughtless”).

    Victims of the BP oil spill also reacted negatively — albeit with more candour. “Man, that ain’t right,” Bobby Pitre of Louisiana told the BBC at the time. “None of us can even go out fishing, and he’s at the yacht races… I wish we could get a day off from the oil, too.”

    Supporters of Hayward defended the CEO. “Everybody needs a little time off to recharge,” said John Curry, a BP spokesman, at the time.

    Hayward stepped down from the position of CEO about a month later, though the BBC reported he would take in a £600,000 ($930,000) annual pension. Two years later, in 2012, he donated the by-then infamous yacht to charity.


  • AIG: A lack of Southern sensibilities

    The CEO of multinational insurance company AIG, Robert Benmosche, had his foot-in-mouth in the midst of an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

    Speaking about the outrage over bonuses promised to AIG executives in the midst of the 2008 financial fallout, Benmosche said the scandal “was intended to stir public anger, to get everyone out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses, and all that — sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.”

    Unsurprisingly, equating public anger over bonuses at a company rescued with $170 billion in taxpayer dollars with a lynching didn’t exactly go over well. As the Washington Post quipped, “Yes, enduring some public criticism for receiving multimillion-dollar bonuses after helping crash the global economy is a lot like being hanged from a tree by your neck until you die.”

    Congressman Elijah Cummings, then the top Democrat on the House’s Oversight Committee, took the criticism a step further — indicating that if the quotes were true, Benmosche should resign as CEO of AIG.

    "I find it unbelievably appalling that Mr Benmosche equates the violent repression of the African American people with congressional efforts to prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars," he said in a statement.

    Benmosche eventually apologised for his remarks: “It was a poor choice of words. I never meant to offend anyone by it.”


  • Chick-fil-A: A flap over gay marriage

    Fast-food chicken sandwich empire Chick-fil-A is a staple in the American South, where it is no secret that the company has a decidedly religious bent; it is the only national fast-food chain closed on Sundays so employees can spend time with family and attend church.

    Chick-fil-A’s religious bent came into focus when president and COO Dan Cathy said, “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business and we are married to our first wives.”

    That quote, coupled with news the chain had donated millions to anti-gay groups in 2009 and 2010 was enough to make LGBT supporters fly into a rage. Various boycotts and protests sprung up nationwide. One of the more creative efforts: a “National Same-Sex Kiss Day at Chick-fil-A”.

    Chick-fil-A issued an official statement bowing out of the political firestorm, stating “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” But when the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in June 2013, Cathy went back on that promise — at least briefly. A deleted tweet caught by a reader of the Wall Street Journal read, “Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”