You are probably acquainted with the good old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. This has been the reasoning behind dozens of highly successful controversial ads and marketing campaigns. But before you decide that dabbling with the latest social and political issues could bring you some attention and customers, think again. Why do controversial ads work for some, and spectacularly fail for other businesses?
Although every business is a story for itself, and there is nobody who can offer you a 100% guarantee that something will succeed or fail, there are a few patterns when it comes to controversial ads. These patterns are something you should consider if you feel that controversy is just what you need to nudge your budding business towards awareness and recognition.
If you want to make controversy the staple of your marketing strategy, keep in mind these 5 reasons why controversial ads worked for some of your favorite brands.
1. Controversial brands can afford controversy
You may notice that brands that get involved in risque campaigns tend to be well-off, established names in their industry. The willingness to tackle the risk comes from two conditions:
They know their audience and customers very well. Nowadays, knowing your audience doesn’t only mean providing them with a good product and selling it in a way that caters to them. It also means aligning your brand with your customers’ lifestyle and values.
A growing number of businesses is vocal about social, environmental, and political issues, using their platform to contribute to various causes. While voicing your support for certain positions or politicians can alienate some potential customers, many brands prioritize their relationship with the customers whose values align with the brand’s culture. This leads us to the next condition.
They can afford to lose some customers. While this conclusion requires some tricky math, many brands feel that controversy usually stirs up emotions among the people who wouldn’t normally be their one-time or loyal customers. Even if the controversial ad or campaign turns out to be a failure, these companies can still accumulate the potential fallout – financially and in terms of social currency.
Example: Nike and Colin Kaepernick
Nike has been the talk of the town after featuring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as part of their new “Just Do It” advertising campaign. Kaepernick gained nationwide praise and notoriety when he kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice and police brutality. His act has been criticized by the U.S. president Donald Trump, and at the same time, celebrated and emulated by other public figures and audience.
Nike decided to ride this wave of controversy by inking a deal with Kaepernick, turning him into a poster boy of the latest “Just Do It” campaign.
Some customers felt that the quarterback was a perfect choice to carry the torch of Nike’s inspirational and aspirational campaign. Others, however, decided to boycott Nike, going as far as posting videos of themselves quite literally torching Nike products.
The company’s shares fell in the immediate aftermath, as #NikeBoycott tag was trending on Twitter.
“We feel actually very good and very proud of the work that we’re doing with Just Do It,” Nike CEO Mark Parker answered to backlash. For a good reason. Apart from record engagement that came from the damning hashtag, a few weeks later, Nike’s market value surged by nearly $6 billion.
Ultimately, Nike demonstrated that it knows its target audience very well, and aligns with its worldview effortlessly. The brand prioritized this audience over potential customers in favor of building a solid relationship with its fanbase.
Could Nike afford this controversy in its early years? Probably not. In this article, we touched upon the topic of controversial ads, and talked about an attempt to launch a new business with controversial topics.
Long story short, two entrepreneurs decided to sell coffee with a slogan “no bulls**t, just f***ing good coffee,” implying that the pleasure was reserved for men who wanted to escape women’s incessant talking and nagging. Did this help them grow brand awareness?
For sure, thanks to the angry reactions from women’s rights activists. But did this help them sustain their business, where target market could have been both men and women? Well, no, because why would I buy your product if you are implying that I am annoying?
I won’t go into the premise of ‘just for men’ reasoning in this campaign. The fact is, certain businesses can get away with “boy’s club” controversial ads, but this one couldn’t. Why? Because it didn’t follow the two rules from the beginning of the story. Right off the bat, it alienated a perfectly adequate and viable portion of their target market. And they couldn’t afford it.
2. Controversy is a calculated risk
Controversial ads may not be as brave and controversial as people often tend to think. This brings us once again to the beginning of the story where the key to minimizing risk is, as we said, knowing your target market.
Example: Lush vs. British cops
Despite its sole expertise in making bath bombs and body lotions, cosmetics brand Lush is also known as the resident opinion-haver on every imaginable environmental, social and political topic in the world. Whatever you may think about that, just like Nike, Lush is well aligned with its fanbase’s lifestyle and values.
Their latest campaign featuring controversial ads targeting British police, thus, seems like a regular routine for the cosmetics giant. The campaign was meant to highlight the misconduct of undercover police officers who infiltrated many leftist political groups.
The ads were followed by a backlash and even ended up being criticised by British home secretary, Sajid Javid, for being anti-police and insulting to police officers. Lush was on fire.
Although a 2000% increase in engagement, with largely negative feedback, may seem like a PR disaster, on paper, or better say in the bank, the whole ordeal ended with 13% increase in sales. How so?
“Ultimately the people most angry at Lush and calling for a boycott weren’t very likely to buy anything from the shop anyway,” Brandwatch argues. ‘For the other side, the people who already like Lush, they were less likely to have a problem with the campaign. Meanwhile, people who weren’t Lush customers but were sympathetic to the cause would now see the company in a more favorable light.”
2. Certain industries thrive on controversy
There are some products and industries that have always walked hand in hand with controversy.
High fashion, by its nature, is meant to be audacious, teasing, groundbreaking and outrageous. And when you sport all these attributes, it’s only natural that you relish in controversy. Controversial ads and campaigns have always been abundant in the world of fashion.
Apart from fancy clothes, what is the first thing you think about when we mention fashion? I bet it’s skinny girls, crazy parties and drugs. One of the most popular supermodels of the 90s era, Kate Moss, effortlessly embodied and blended all these things into heroin chic.
Has it worked for her? Most of the time. Does it still work?
Examples: Carolina Herrera and 212 NYC Pills, Sisley, Tom Ford
Have you seen this Carolina Herrera perfume?
In case the shape of the bottle isn’t making things clear enough, the name of the collection is 212 NYC Pills. In case this isn’t clear enough, one of these sweeties smells like rum. But just in case everything is flying over your head, here’s the controversial ad.
And here are some reactions.
Sales? Well, it’s enough to say that the original 212 perfume was launched 20 years ago, it is still sold, and Herrera keeps adding new “pills” to the collection.
Apart from drugs, sex, especially non-conventional, has been a popular inspiration for controversial ads in fashion industry.
This is one of Sisley’s recent campaigns, featuring Gigi Hadid, Ireland Baldwin and Simon Nessman in what seems to be a fairly (not the right kind of) stiff introduction to a threesome.
But Sisley seems tame compared to Tom Ford’s controversial ads for a namesake perfume. Now, I didn’t go with headliner ads because they are, in fact, pornographic, but I will let your imagination and Google Images run wild if you take into account that these are the tame shots.
You can find similar motives in D&G, Gucci, Calvin Klein, American Apparel, etc. campaigns. And it works – over and over again, sending a message that high fashion is something exclusive, over the edge, I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-my reputation.
Could GAP pull it off? No, for obvious reasons. Could a beginner pull it off? Well, you can try – because in some industries, shock value is a currency.
3. You don’t backtrack
Another important element of successful controversial ads is the unwillingness of the companies to back down in the face of pressure – not even when the controversy is obviously justified. And really, if there is one thing that makes things worse after a terrible ad is backtracking and apologizing.
For starters, it doesn’t really change anyone’s mind. Those who hate you will still hate you. On the other hand, those who stood by you will see you as a traitor. So what’s it gonna be?
Examples: Carl’s Jr. and sexy burgers
Perfect example? Carl’s Jr, whose campaigns could be described by – sleazy through and through.
Carl’s Jr used to be one of the thousands obsolete fast food chains in the United States until Paris Hilton showed up and did this.
Some would say this ad was demeaning, ridiculous and vulgar, but (arguably) sexy half-naked blonde devouring a burger spoke perfectly to Carl Jr. target audience.
“Carl Jr., in my opinion, and its sexy ads were a perfect fit to engage hungry– in many ways–men,” Jasmine Sandler, a marketing strategist and CEO of the Agent-cy Online Marketing told Fox News.
Carl’s Jr’s marketing strategy continued in these tracks, with model Charlotte McKinney turning heads and enjoying an ‘All Natural’ burger, an attribute shared by the ingredients and McKinney’s voluptuous curves. While Paris Hilton controversial ad ran in 2005, McKinney advertised Carl’s Jr’s ten years later, in the era when (at least blatant) objectification of women no longer goes without controversy.
Yet the fast food chain stood through and through by its decision to employ curvy models as poster girls for the brand. And it worked.
You can call them easy and sleazy, but at least they are principled.
5. There is intelligence in controversy
Speaking of sleaziness, look no further than cosmetic brands. While their sole purpose is fixing what women perceive is wrong with them, concern for female self-esteem has been the staple of many marketing campaigns in the beauty industry.
Yet, this trend was pioneered by one brand.
Example: Dove vs. women
Dove’s “Movement for Self-Esteem” dedicated to recognizing and accepting women’s natural looks and flaws boosted the company’s sales from $2.5 billion to $4 billion in one decade. Its “Campaign for Real Beauty” is considered one of the best ad campaigns in the 21st century, and subsequent campaigns only cemented the brand’s reputation as women’s best friend.
Telling women they are pretty just as they are, instead of making them chase unattainable beauty standards sounds great, right? What is there to be hated? As campaigns rolled out, the tone of Dove’s ads grew increasingly patronizing in its depiction of women as feeble beings crippled by insecurities about their looks.
This was particularly visible in 2015 campaign “Choose Beautiful”. The controversial ad comes in the form of four-minute video showing women in five global cities standing in front of two doors: one labeled “beautiful,” the other “average.” Most women walk through the “average” door. As the ad progresses, more and more women walk through Beautiful door, and the ad concludes with another motivational message.
What is the problem here? For starters, it is not a video of real women making the choice – it’s a scripted advertisement. Second, it is based on a study that found that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful. While this may sound worrisome, Dove’s campaign doesn’t take into account that, beautiful or not, 71 percent of women are satisfied with their beauty.
So what generated controversy is the sleaze factor. Dove claims its mission is to boost women’s self-confidence, while, in fact, it’s ignoring the fact that most women are pretty much happy with their looks.
As sleazy as this patronizing attitude is, its goal is not to argue facts and stats – it is to stir up our emotions, and position the brand as a trusting, supportive friend to women. As controversial as it is, it is intelligent – unlike Pepsi’s terrible attempt at advertising Kendal Jenner and a can of soda as the solution to American racial divisions.
Controversy is a fickle friend. Before you decide to use it, ask yourself whether you meet these five conditions. If you do, keep in mind that in controversial ads, you are supposed to be behind the wheel at all times, not the controversy. If you don’t crash, tell us how it’s like on the other side – in the comments.
And if you want to learn more about other amazing ways to capture the attention of your potential customers, click here to read how Nike built its invincible brand and here to find out how to create online buzz.