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FabFitFun, a $1 billion subscription box startup, frantically backpedals after a profane, pro–Elon Musk ad bombs

Ian Gavan—Getty Images/FabFitFun

FabFitFun turned into a dumpster fire just in time for the holiday season. The millennial-favorite subscription box company went viral this week when it posted a controversial ad on Elon Musk’s X (formerly Twitter)—but it blew up for all the wrong reasons.

The meltdown over what appeared to be a badly misjudged attempt to piggyback off a viral Musk moment reads as a case study in how not to approach internet marketing.

On Monday, users of X were treated to an ad that read: “Happy Holidays! FabFitFun is pledging an additional $100k of X advertising in support of its free speech ideals.” The ad offered new annual X users a free $300 gift with their first box if they used the code “GoF--kYourself.”

The incendiary ad riffed on Musk’s comments at the New York Times’ recent DealBook Summit, where Musk defended his reposting of an anti-Semitic post, and spoke directly to companies like IBM, Apple, and Disney, who have all pulled advertising from the social media platform, telling them: “Go f--k yourself.” (The lost ads could cost X up to $75 million in revenue, the Times estimated.)

Subscribers were appalled. Some people unfamiliar with Musk’s mic-drop moment mistook the crass code as a dig at FabFitFun customers directly. Others were disappointed in the company for aligning itself with Musk—a move they didn’t expect from a seller of millennial-focused wellness and consumer goods.

The company is scrambling to rectify the situation, but it may have overshot in its cleanup attempts—going from apologizing directly to customers, to deleting negative comments and any online mentions of the short-lived ad campaign.

FabFitFun was founded in 2010 by brothers Michael and Daniel Broukhim and Katie Echevarria Rosen Kitchens, whose current title is editor-in-chief. The startup was valued at just under $1 billion in January 2019 and was rumored to have been eyeing an IPO in 2020. The company’s boxes, broadly targeted toward women, include a curated mix of skin care, makeup, fashion, home, and fitness items. An annual subscription for four boxes costs $219.99, while a one-off box goes for $64.99.

The ad felt like a rude political intrusion into lifestyle retail. One X user wrote, “Just in case anybody thinks of trying FabFitFun, the owners are right-wing Trumpers who are enamoured with Elon & snarl ‘woke’ under their breath.”

The ad was deleted on Tuesday, but by then screenshots were circulating on Reddit and TikTok. Many were initially skeptical as to whether or not the ad was real, but numerous people online who tested the code said it worked. (The code was invalid when Fortune tested it on Wednesday.)

FabFitFun’s frantic response

FabFitFun confirmed the legitimacy of the ad in an apology post to its members-only community forum on Tuesday afternoon, writing, “We’ve circled up with teams internally and believe the execution of this campaign was in poor judgment. The advertisement in question has been taken down, and we apologize for any offense it created.”

“They didn't apologize for doing it, they apologized for any offense it created,” one Reddit user wrote in the r/FabFitFun subreddit. “Screw these guys, there are so many options that don’t involve delayed shipping, expired products, poor customer service, or supporting this type of ideology.”

The FabFitFun cofounders also directly apologized to subscribers in the community forum on Wednesday morning.

“The ad we created was ham-handed, and the profanity it introduced, particularly without the relevant context, is both out of place and out of character for our brand. For all that, we apologize,” cofounder and co-CEO Michael Broukhim wrote in a post, Modern Retail reported.

“The ad—it was dumb,” cofounder and editor-in-chief Kitchens wrote in another post, which went on to offer a backstory.

“I do think it was meant to be a joke,” she continued. “The issue is that it was just not funny at all. That’s my biggest problem. I know the team thought that it could be so outrageous that it could go viral. But I also think it was off brand for us—and not in a good, boundary pushing kind of way.”

The company responded to Fortune’s request for comment on Wednesday afternoon:

“Clearly, this was a mistake—a poorly thought out attempt to participate in a viral moment through a marketing test—and for that we take ownership and responsibility,” the company said in a statement, adding, “without defending the decision, because we don’t believe it was a good one, we do want to share a bit of context.”

The statement explained that the company is expanding its marketing channels, and it decided to test ads and allocate a budget to X. One of the proposed concepts was this ad.

“However, the content and tone of the ad was out of place and out of character and is not representative of who we are as a brand,” the statement read.

A spokesperson for the company did not respond to questions about the founders’ forum posts. On Friday, multiple Reddit users told Fortune that the moderator of the FabFitFun subreddit was deleting posts and threads critical of the founders.

But the backlash goes beyond the X ad. People online say the failed campaign came as no surprise, pointing to the Broukhim brothers’ long-standing support of Musk, frequent invectives against the “woke mind virus,” and anti-trans tweets.

“I subscribed for two years before canceling, and I’m so grossed out how they claimed to empower women and Black-owned businesses, and then they’re tweeting about ‘wokeness’ and such right-wing s--t?” one Reddit user said. “It feels so exploitative. I hope this tanks them tbh.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com