Why Controversial Marketing Works (if done right)

6th Mar 2020

Why Controversial Marketing Works (if done right)

It's a tough world for a marketing campaign nowadays. With so much going on, the attention you need is getting harder and harder to grab. More extreme tactics are being developed and utilised, with some marketers opting for controversial routes to get cut through. But it isn't a new phenomenon. Do you remember the old Benetton ads? In the 1980s and 1990s, Benetton thrived on shocking consumers with their 'brave' (or completely unjustified, depending on how you look at it) advertising. It all begs the question - why do this, if all they sell are jumpers?

(Clockwise from top left - Nike, Burger King, Peta)


Controversial marketing is exactly what it says on the tin - a campaign that deliberately shocks an audience by raising, for example, social issues or taboo subjects. You can see why this style of marketing is the most talked about. It challenges societal norms and values, and can upset a great deal of people.


There are three defining types:

  • Taboo

  • Shock

  • Debatable


Taboo would be a marketing campaign surrounding feminine hygiene products, for instance. Poo-Pourri challenged the myth of women not having the ability to go for number twos, and paid off tremendously. The crass humour was genuinely funny - after all, no matter how old you are, what happens in the toilet is funny business. And of course, a real benefit of this strand of controversial marketing would be that your competitors might have been potentially too scared to actively market their products, giving you a head start.


Revealing that five-star hotels are statistically the dirtiest of all the hotels would be an example of shock advertising. One of the more shocking examples of this type of advertising in recent years is from Moms Demand Action in America, with their campaign on what the country deemed 'unsafe' and 'safe' for a child. One of their more hard-hitting examples is the comparison between the ban of the Little Red Riding Hood book and a gun. It's an emotive image and really hits home the absurdity of the gun laws in America.


Abodo's 'Tolerance in America' shows the debatable side of controversial marketing. The campaign looked into America's use of derogatory language towards different races, ethnicities, genders, religions and sexual orientations. The statistics demonstrated per state the amount of times such language was used in tweets. Taking the emotion out of it and just presenting the cold, hard facts sparked a conversation about the treatment of others within America over social media.


As you can see, there isn't just one cookie-cutter method of going about controversial advertising. And there's always 'good' controversy and 'bad' controversy, and there are plenty of examples of both in advertising.


Peta's advertising tactics always thrive on being controversial and frequently rely on shock value. But one campaign in particular resonates with many for not being the best way to go about delivering a controversial message. Their 'Save the Whales' campaign is not related to the sea creature. Rather, these 'whales' are those with obesity. Trying to spread the message that a vegetarian diet can help shift the pounds, it was just humiliating for people it was targeted at. Their press release for the campaign wasn't forgiving either, claiming that 'trying to hide your thunder thighs and balloon belly is no day at the beach'.


Yes, the 'Save the Whales' campaign got everyone talking, but it got everyone talking about how bloody rude Peta is. One horrified Peta supporter commented on the campaign, 'surely cruelty-free means cruelty-free?' If you've managed to alienate your own supporters, you've probably done something wrong.


On the opposite side of the spectrum, Nike's 'Dream Crazy' shows how controversial marketing can work to your advantage. It was a brave leap using someone who is already considered a controversial figure to a wide percentage of the American audience, including President Donald 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he's fired' Trump. Colin Kaepernick, the figure in question, is a true embodiment of the slogan - he hasn't been signed up by any NFL team since he took the knee in protest against the treatment of black people in America. A national hero to many, a villian to others.


While some may have burned their trainers, Nike's sales soared. From the advert and campaign, they received $163 million in media, $6 billion increase in brand value and a 31% boost in sales. Controversy pays.


Recently, Campaign questioned whether shock tactics actually work in advertising, using the recent (and now infamous) mouldy Whopper as their example. The ad is enough to put anyone off their lunch, but the message is simple - you'll find no artificial preservatives in Burger King burgers (unlike its competitor fast food company).


But is the advert simply the designers and / or marketing team award-baiting? Those in the creative industry know that it's this kind of campaign that will get noticed and might win something at a big awards ceremony. (Nike won an Emmy for their controversial campaign after all). It raises the question if Burger King actually care about the message they are selling.


Consequently this might lead to the public doubting your campaign and questioning its authenticity, which is a big no-no for any company going down the controversial route. You've got to be careful - it will seem a little odd if your brand suddenly attaches itself to a contentious issue that it is not affiliated with at all. For instance, a company that sells staplers suddenly has a campaign surrounding racism within today's society. Or Lush and its 'Spy Cops'. It just doesn't make sense and the audience will think you have an ulterior motive. If you do go down this advertising path, it's got to relate to your brand values. Otherwise it's game over.


And if you're thinking to yourself that your controversial campaign does align with your values, please practise what you preach. Nike found themselves in trouble with their 'Dream Crazier' advert empowering women to keep striving, and yet apparently don't treat their pregnant staff all too well. Oops.


There are plenty of other factors to recognise if you're considering controversy. When it comes down to it, can you afford to lose some customers? Are you ready for the spotlight and the aftermath? And if it does go south, do you have plans in place?


For starters, there's the detrimental (and often personal) effect it can have on you, your staff and your customers if it all goes dramatically wrong. It can't be nice to be attached to a bad campaign, with the prevalence of social media and various news outlets. Just look at Pepsi. It was a terrible idea for an advert where the lead model can solve all of the contentious issues in society, just by handing the police a can of Pepsi during a protest (*insert joke about it not even being Coca Cola here*). Accusations of 'trivialising' and it being a tone-deaf approach to the Black Lives Matter movement were rife. Cue grovelling apology from Pepsi, stating that 'clearly, [they] missed the mark, and [they] apologise', and the ad was pulled with immediate effect.


It's not all doom and gloom, however. Using controversial marketing can effectively increase your brand awareness within your target audience, more so than any other marketing tactic. It'll be the same for your sales too. It worked for Airbnb. Their '#WeAccept' advert during the 2017 Super Bowl demonstrated Airbnb's pledge to provide short-term housing for refugees, victims of natural disaster, aid workers or anyone else in need. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive (85% to be precise). 33,000 tweets were broadcast about the advert, and 15,400 volunteers signed up to open their homes to people without housing. Touchdown, and the crowd goes wild.


Ultimately, you've got to ask yourself - do you actually need controversial marketing? It can dramatically increase customer attention - more so than your traditional marketing. But you do run the risk of losing a large chunk of your audience. Can your goal be achieved without the shock value?


Don't do it just for the sake of it and because you've seen good results for other companies. Really, really, really evaluate the risks involved, make sure you go through all the relevant internal checks and please guarantee that your messaging is strong enough.


Good luck.


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