​Is Controversy The Last Effective Advertising Strategy?

Do all brands need to start seriously considering stirring the pot?


Who remembers the dress?

Was it white and gold or blue and black?

That was a pretty intense time for offices all around the world.

How do you align your toilet paper? Are you team sheet over or behind?

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you might want to check out the extremely well sourced, 6000-word article on the topic, 'Toilet Paper Orientation'.

Let's take it back a bit, who remembers the Britney/Madonna kiss? What about the first time you left your house and saw a scandalous young lady showing off a bit of ankle? A bit before your time? Well, that's the point. By definition, for something to be controversial, it simply has to incite debate between people. Those are, or at least were, all considered controversial in their time. And whether it’s the merits of capitalism or what the best sci-fi TV show is, controversy is both contemporary and broad. What was controversial 50 years ago is commonplace now.

Generally, when we are asked to think about a controversial topic, we tend to drift towards religion, politics, or tragedy. However, according to Douglas A. Marshal's journal 'A Theory of Ritual Practice', it is much less defined as people simply care deeply about anything under these 3 main categories:

  • Behaviours
  • Belonging
  • Beliefs 
  • If you want to pierce the hardened membrane of society's consciousness, few tactics work better than probing one these categories and stirring the general public's pot a little bit. The real challenge is trying to ensure the debate you initiated doesn't bite back to harm your brand. Once you've started a conversation, you have no true control of where it will lead.

    Trigger warnings

    If you want to dabble in a bit of controversy as a brand, you've got to play it smart. Ask yourself these questions:

    1. What kind of controversy do you want to create?

    2. Is your brand directly associated with the controversy?

    3. What are you going to do if it all backfires?

    For a brand, controversy is like playing with fire. It might keep you warm and give you a hot meal, or it might burn down everything you love. It has the potential to render your relatively obscure brand an overnight sensation, or cripple a 100-year dynasty.

    Creating debates around topics people relate closely with but have no real skin in the game are usually the safest bets, like the toilet roll article. However, even topics which people care deeply about can be ventured if it handled as objectively as possible. Most of the time, especially in this Twitter age, the brand just serves as a platform for others to share their views.

    The other, much riskier, direction you could go is down the shocking/ taboo path. This is more unpredictable as it puts your brand front and center of the action. People will still debate each other, but this time they will debate your brand and the views you decided to associate with. If you pick the wrong side, you are going down.

    However, no advertising campaign is ever completely safe. Like I said, even the best-laid plans can still result in a burnt down brand.

    Bad publicity is definitely a thing.

    Riding the line

    When Oreo released the image of the rainbow-filling cookie on their Facebook page during Pride, it garnered 55,000 likes and over 30,000 comments in under an hour. They were mostly supportive and Oreo came across as a genuinely conscientious brand at a time when that truly matters.

    It might seem like a safe bet today and the ad might even seem lazy, but there were many smart choices made within this simple advert.

    For one, the ad was intentionally understated. It wasn't presented as an ad to sell Oreo's; it came across as a brand taking a stand purely to show support and solidarity for the LGBTQ community. In a perfect world, this wouldn't be a divisive position, but there is always room for a backlash when a brand picks a side in a debate which people have such strong opinions about.

    The brand was probably immediately boycotted by some people (for at least for as long as they could go without Oreos), but that wasn't really the worry here. The fear with an ad like this is being rejected by the community you are trying to support. It could have been viewed as a cynical attempt to jump on the bandwagon. It could have even been boycotted by the people whose side they were on.

    Ads like this or the Dove 'Real Beauty' campaign show what seems to be the one defining quality of a good controversial campaign.


    Empathy is hard to fake. People have a spider-sense for it and if you are being disingenuous, the public will sniff it out and punish you for it.

    When controversy gets controversial

    For every one brand that pulls off a controversial marketing campaign, there are a hundred that mess it up. Some industries arouse different reactions to controversy than others. The fashion industry, for example, has always ridden that line pretty close, with almost every big designer having released an advert at one time or another which incurred the wrath of the general public. However, these brands almost never suffer permanent damage as we kind of expect that kind of behavior from them.

    Some industries, on the other hand, do not do well with controversy. Likewise, there are some topics which no brand should find themselves associated with, ever.

    A few months ago, Papa John's CEO John Schnatter commented on how the NFL kneeling protest had detrimentally affected their sales. This was interpreted by the Alt-Right as a tacit endorsement of their beliefs and they very quickly lauded Papa Johns as the official pizza of their movement. After a few months of damage control, it was finally announced that Schnatter, who was not only the CEO, but the face of the company, would be stepping down.

    And then there's the infamous Pepsi advert. I didn't want to pile, but that advert will be studied in colleges for generations to come. It has almost every element of what you shouldn't do when it comes to courting controversy, and they weren't even trying to. Of the many, many flaws that advert had, the biggest one was their sheer and absolute tone deafness. They simply didn't get it, on any level. When you think about the number of people who had to approve of that advert before it was released, it’s astounding.

    Unlike the Oreo ad, Pepsi didn't stand with anyone in that advert and they put nothing on the line. They tried to cash in on a multifaceted movement without the inconvenience of having to take a side. In the end, they were so overwhelmingly rejected that the campaign was pulled within a few days amidst a flurry of apologies. Even Kendall Jenner had to apologize for just featuring in the mess.

    Yet, despite all this, the point has to be made; we have all talked more about Pepsi this year than in the last decade combined. In today's social media run world, controversy is one of the few things left that will ever get people to think about a brand, for better or worse.

    So you have to be brave. If you have convictions, stick to them. But in equal measure, you have to be attentive to people’s feelings, especially those of the demographic you hope to draw.

    At the end of the day, empathy is all. 

    Smart manufacturing small

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