It’s a simple fact that controversy turns heads. It grabs people’s attention and practically demands that they give it their time.
Of course, controversy can deeply offend people or inspire them to think more deeply about a topic.
Either way, it always gets folks to stop what they’re doing long enough to sit up and take notice.
But is it true what they say about bad publicity — that there’s actually no such thing? Is the inevitable attention a controversial ad will bring you worth the potential risk to your company’s reputation?
Here’s a closer look at everything you need to know to truly understand controversial advertising as a concept and decide whether it’s the right choice for your digital advertising campaign.
What is Controversial Advertising?
The very purpose of an advertisement is to shine a spotlight on your business so your brand can reach an audience, gain customers, and grow.
Successful advertising raises awareness of your products and services. In addition, it paints an exciting picture of what life could be like if your brand were part of it.
Controversy, on the other hand, is all about shaking things up. It stirs up strong emotions and inspires heated conversation, if not genuine arguments.
It definitely commands people’s attention, whether they like what they’re seeing and hearing or not.
And, contrary to popular belief, controversy isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s a jumping-off point for fruitful conversations and beneficial new connections.
Controversial advertising harnesses the undeniable power of controversy to compel the audience to pay attention to the brand behind it.
It’s virtually a guarantee that a controversial ad will get people talking about your brand, but whether or not you’ll like what they’re saying is another matter entirely.
Should a Brand Deliberately Create Controversy?
Balance has always been the key to marketing that works.
However, there’s a fine line between standing out from the rest of the white noise in a positive way and potentially making the wrong impression on your target audience.
And that line is a lot easier to cross than many marketers realize until it’s too late.
Whether to cross that line into controversial territory depends a lot on the company behind the ad, as well as the ultimate goal of that company’s branding campaign.
Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether your brand should dip its toes into controversial waters.
Know your persona well
To minimize the risk of an ad campaign that goes against the grain, you need to know your audience (and how they react to things) very well.
Consider how willing you are to stick by an attempt to go against the grain even if it doesn’t work out so well. When an eyebrow-raising ad goes wrong, backtracking can often make a misfire even worse.
Be smart about it
Some industries mesh fairly comfortably with controversy and thrive on it. Fashion is just one excellent example.
Wait for the right moment
Controversy is also a better fit for larger brands that can afford to shock a few people.
Big brands have bigger, more established audiences that can and will forgive a misstep.
On the other hand, small businesses might have a more challenging time recovering, especially if they’re still finding their target audience.
Controversial ads can be a brilliant way to attract attention to your brand.
However, it’s still a risk, especially if your company is very small or otherwise still finding its footing.
Risks can help your brand turn heads, but you should always make sure they’re calculated ones.
Controversial Ads That Work
When controversial ads get things right, they can score some serious home runs.
The following are some noteworthy examples of against-the-grain ads that not only got people talking but made waves in all the right ways.
1. Nike: Dream Crazy
Colin Kaepernick became a hugely controversial figure by kneeling during the national anthem for the 2016 NFL season.
However, he was doing it for a great reason — to take a stand against racial inequality. Although that choice pretty much ended his football career, many people admired Kaepernick for his courage and forthrightness.
Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign was all about showing support for incredible athletes in their efforts to make their biggest dreams come true.
Colin Kaepernick and his dedication to social causes were featured, which definitely sparked controversy.
But it also inspired millions and boosted Nike’s sales by an impressive 31 percent.
2. Lane Bryant: #ThisBody
Lane Bryant is famous for designing beautiful, fashion-forward clothes for plus-sized women, so an ad that addressed important issues like body shaming and self-esteem seemed like a no-brainer.
The brand’s #ThisBody ad featured plus-sized models posing in various outfits, including some of Lane Bryant’s lingerie, while discussing why they love and celebrate their bodies.
Both ABC and NBC wound up pulling the ad for showing too much skin for television (despite not being any more risqué than similar ads).
But Lane Bryant stood by their work, refusing to make requested edits and instead releasing it across the brand’s social media channels.
It quickly went viral and generated an extremely positive response, winning Lane Bryant the support of countless new fans and potential customers.
3. Heineken: Worlds Apart
It goes without saying that the average person feels incredibly strongly about their political beliefs.
So when Heineken decided to address the concept of political differences via their Worlds Apart ad, things were bound to get interesting.
The ad features random people paired together and asked to assemble a bar with stools as teams.
After they bonded with one another over the activity, it was revealed that they held opposing political views.
And when further asked to sit down and discuss their differences over a beer, each of the pairs agreed, to the tune of incredible results.
The result was an ad that successfully challenged people to put their differences aside and painted Heineken in a beautiful light by association.
Controversial Ads That Don’t Work
A smart marketer never wants to lose sight of the fact that while controversy can generate the kind of buzz that results in a healthier bottom line, it’s all too easy to go too far in the other direction.
So here’s a look at a few controversial ads that went way past edgy into positively cringe-worthy territory.
1. Miracle Mattress: Twin Towers
Blowout retail sales and patriotic holidays tend to go hand-in-hand, so people all but expect to hear about fantastic offers on occasions like Veterans Day or Labor Day.
That’s precisely why a small local mattress company called Miracle Mattress thought a September 11th sale would be a great idea.
However, it wasn’t the sale itself that caused an issue. It was the corresponding advertisement that showed two toppling stacks of mattresses plus a store salesman shouting, “We’ll never forget.”
When audiences found the ad offensive and insensitive, Miracle Mattress wound up facing criticism so severe, they were forced out of business — a cautionary tale as to what can happen when controversy goes wrong for small businesses.
2. Pepsi: Live for Now
Pepsi’s disastrous Live for Now ad is solid proof that it’s not just small businesses that sometimes get controversy embarrassingly wrong.
Even big brands used to scoring serious wins can miss the mark entirely.
After all, who could forget the tone-deaf implication that a can of Pepsi (with a bit of help from Kendall Jenner) is all it takes to put an end to the dead-serious social justice issues plaguing the world today?
This ad made history, not for improving Pepsi’s bottom line, but for racking up five times as many downvotes on YouTube as upvotes.
In fact, the ad garnered so much hate, Pepsi had to pull it down mere hours after posting it.
The famous soft drink giant went wrong by placing a stronger emphasis on their product than on the weighty world issue touched on by the commercial, making the whole thing seem empty and self-serving.
3. Nationwide: Boy
This seemingly heartwarming ad from Nationwide features an adorable little boy who appears to need to overcome an issue with shyness.
The visually appealing imagery is accompanied by the boy’s voiceover detailing all the incredible things he won’t ever be able to do with his life.
And then suddenly, it’s revealed that the boy isn’t shy after all. Instead, he’s dead, therefore unable to ever grow up.
The idea behind this ad was to shine a light on what a serious issue childhood accidents can be and how important it is to protect your family from potential harm.
However, audiences saw the ad as an insensitive attempt to exploit a highly sensitive issue to scare them into buying insurance.
Wrap Up: Master the Art of Controversial Ads That Get Results
Although controversy can sometimes be the secret sauce that takes a given ad from good to legendary, there’s a fine art to using it wisely.
It’s also just one of many effective techniques that can make your marketing team the master of advertising that generates incredible results.
Sometimes a little expert advice is all it takes to make the difference.
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