Virgin Mobile US has pulled an online ad that appeared to make light of rape after an "epic marketing fail" that forced Sir Richard Branson to publicly intervene.
The ad depicted a man holding a gift while shielding a woman's eyes with the caption: "The gift of Christmas surprise. Necklace? Or chloroform".
References to the organic compound, once used as an anaesthetic but also as a tool for criminals to knock out their victims, sparked an immediate online backlash on Twitter after user EverydaySexism published a screenshot of the ad.
Many targeted their rage at Branson, prompting him to write on his blog that the ad was "ill-judged" and the company had "gone too far".
"Although I don't own the company, it carries our brand . . . having spoken with them just now they acknowledge a dreadful mistake was made," Branson wrote.
"The advert, along with the whole calendar, has been removed, never to be seen again."
An earlier posting reportedly in the Virgin Christmas ad campaign showed Santa giving a thumbs up with the caption: "Sees you when you're sleeping - ladies".
Virgin Mobile US is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sprint Nextel.
John Mescall, executive creative director at McCann Worldgroup and the brains behind the recent hit viral ad campaign "Dumb Ways to Die", said it was "mind-boggling" the ad was made and described it as "an epic marketing fail on all accounts".
"Humour is a very powerful way for a brand to generate the likeability that is needed to create memorability, but when using humour you have to accept that not everyone is going to enjoy it," he said.
"It's very subjective. But I'd imagine there's one thing we can all agree on: rape jokes are never appropriate, full stop."
Iain McDonald, founder of digital marketing agency Amnesia Razorfish, said some areas in advertising were "just no go", particularly when there is a risk people could be hurt or offended.
"Bad taste jokes don't work well for brands, especially in a social world where the power is very much with the consumer," he said.
- Sydney Morning Herald