When Can Controversial Advertising Work for You?

Beto Molinari
by Beto Molinari on February 24, 2014 in Strategy
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There’s no such thing as bad publicity, apparently. Or is there? It depends, mostly, on how much courage you have to flout the norms and standards that apply to your particular target market. For some companies, however, so-called “bad” publicity gained from controversial ad campaigns has done them a huge service, getting them 10 times the amount of attention and raising brand awareness through the roof. We took a look at some of the most controversial campaigns run in recent years, the reasons why they upset people and what the companies gained by them.

Making a Play on Words

K-Mart’s video campaign promoted its online store and the fact that customers can order and receive their products by mail. The “Ship Your Pants” ad features a range of people speaking about the ease and convenience of shipping their pants, while the play on words sounds as if they are losing control of their - um - bowels. There’s nothing in the ad that can be construed as directly offensive, so the controversy is subjective and related to the viewer’s personal interpretation.

How well did it work? In the first week it got close to 13 million views online, which is serious reach. Did it deliver? Some industry commenters reckon it draws more attention to chain’s in-store inefficiencies, but any way you want to look at it there are a lot more people who now know Kmart will ship their order to them. And that, really, was the point.

Highlighting Racial Bias

When is it ok to “exploit” prejudices for profit, or is it more a case of mainstreaming? Cereal brand Cheerios video of interracial parents with a child raised many eyebrows, sparking a study with focus groups as to why it was deemed controversial. The ad sparked much in the way of racist commentary, but the company took the stand that “there are many kinds of families, and we celebrate them all.”

In a defiant follow-up, Cheerios has brought out a new ad featuring the same actors to air during the 2014 Super Bowl, generating praise from supporters and criticism from others. One thing is for sure: there are now far more Americans who know about Cheerios breakfast cereal that there were before, and while the company may have lost a few bigoted customers the overwhelmingly positive response is evidence that it has gained many more.

Poking “Fun”

The Brits are great at what they call “poking fun” – a practice that’s often cause for misunderstandings, particularly among those who don’t understand the unique sense of humor. And so it was that a skit by Unilever about sending officers to “rescue” unused jars of Marmite and find them homes. This caused much unhappiness among those who felt it trivialized the issue of animal abuse.

The film uses the same tone and type of footage that you see on reports from animal welfare agencies, and its tongue-in-cheek message makes several points including highlighting the issue of abuse. It’s hardly viral material, but it certainly sticks in mind and probably reaches groups who might never watch a message about animal welfare, so to our way of thinking it achieves more than it sets out to do. Either way, viewers will never look at Marmite in quite the same way again!

Sex Sells

Carls JR

Ok, we’ve known this for a long time, so it should be no surprise when a burger company uses a sexy model to promote its products. Carl’s Jr’s latest ad featuring Katherine Webb is a re-run of its now-well-known concept of using a different girl and capitalizing on the hype that surrounds announcement of the new “face”. Hot girls and hot burgers are the look, and the ads usually get all the usual Mother Grundy suspects coming out of the woodwork. Seems to be working for the company, though!

It isn’t just female sexuality that’s fair game, however; Kraft Foods’ ad featuring a hunky male cooking in an apron and little else to promote its food flavorings was widely offensive to religious and conservative groups, who felt it was “inappropriate” as family fare. Although why younger members of the family would be likely to watch a clip about cooking additives wasn’t ever satisfactorily answered.

Pushing the Boundaries

The worst criticisms have so far been reserved for ad campaigns using imagery that some viewers considered degrading. Dolce and Gabbana’s 2007 ad showing a woman being held down by a man while other men watched was roundly slated by women, who felt it portrayed them as sex objects and romanticized gang rape.

The company, which has a habit of using controversial campaigns, was forced to pull the ad within a few months following worldwide condemnation. Has it affected the brand’s popularity? There’s no way to tell, but certainly they had to do some damage control. Sometimes, adventurousness can backfire.

Using an Exposé

Dove Real Beauty

Beauty products have it rough nowadays. Often, the very issues they are produced to address are the cause of ads being viewed as tasteless, exploitative or demeaning. In the same way a beauty pageant intended to celebrate women can contribute to them being viewed as vain and brainless, an ad campaign aimed at helping improve appearance can be seen as promoting stereotypes.

Dove’s ad showing the way the appearance of a photographic model is manipulated to represent an unrealistic image drew much interest and positive feedback for promoting natural beauty.

Misplaced Innocence

Sometimes brands make the mistake of producing ad campaign that aren’t deliberately controversial. The makers of the Skittles ad featuring a woman making out with a walrus-like creature might have been aiming for a fun, irreverent angle, but what they got was accusations they were making light of bestiality. It seems fairly clear that was never the intention and the ad has stayed the course, even if it is guilty of being ever-so-slightly inappropriate for its child target market.

Commenting on Social Issues

Anything that gets eyeballs is a good opportunity to comment on social issues and vice versa, so JC Penney’s same-sex ads featuring both lesbian parenting and gay male parenting rocked the world of conservative watchdog group One Million Moms. The company took a similar stand to the one taken by Cheerios on the interracial issue and refused to pull the ads. The result? They might have lost a few conservative clients but they gained a whole lot more from the liberal-minded, LGBT and gay-friendly audiences! It’s a matter of weighing up the consequences and choosing a side!

Being Downright Stoopid!

Mountain Dew

The recently-released Mountain Dew ad featuring a crazed goat has been dubbed “downright stupid” by a number of advertising industry buffs. Critics’ opinions ranged from in poor taste to senseless, but the controversy has had the desired effect. Anyone who didn’t know the brand before this probably does so now, which means the advertising objective has largely been achieved.

Wikipedia defines controversy as “a state of prolonged public dispute or debate” and that describes pretty well some of the dramas surrounding the ads mentioned above. Sure, you’ll get publicity. You’ll also get criticism. What it comes down to is this: there are times when courting controversy can certainly work in your favor—as long as you can hang on for the ride!