Utilising controversy in marketing

Posted on Marketing, Uncategorized

When it comes to marketing, there are two popular ways to stand out and make a splash. The first is to hop onto a trend at the right time and place. The second is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. While it comes with more risk, this second option is often the most successful and effective at generating leads. It is also where many brands want to introduce controversy as a marketing tool. But how do you do this with maximum reward and minimal risk? Today we’re discussing the dos and don’ts of utilising controversy in marketing, so that you can make the right kind of impact. 

DO ask yourself the difficult questions

If you’re looking at running a controversial piece of marketing, you need to ask yourself some important questions beforehand. Evaluate what your own beliefs are and whether you can link them back to your product or service. You need to be honest with yourself about whether you’re just trying to have your say about a certain issue, or whether there is real sales opportunity behind what you’re planning. If you are simply looking for a space to have something to say, this may not be the marketing tactic for you right now. Unfortunately, you will need to use this as an opportunity to check your own biases and alignments. If you aren’t sure about what you want to put out, get your team together for a sense check and a brainstorm for other ideas. 

DO be thought provoking

The last thing you want to do here is to throw offence into the faces of your customers. You aren’t telling them what to do or what to believe. You have to be incredibly purposeful here. Show them the facts and let them make up their own minds about the issue at hand. 

A great example of this is Nike’s ‘Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything’ campaign. When ex-NFL star, Colin Kaepernick, started to refuse to stand during America’s national anthem (opting to kneel instead), Nike paid attention. Kaepernick did this to take a stand against racial injustices in the country, and Nike believed in their responsibility to support and sponsor sportsmen with values that matched their own. 

While many people were outraged at the seemingly anti-patriotic move, even more people were encouraged to think about the fact you don’t have to simply accept what is happening around you in the name of patriotism. This can extend far beyond racism. Whatever the issue, you have a choice to support what you believe in and step back from what you don’t. 

DO use taboos 

Taboos are complicated because they aren’t topics that are off-limits due to being explicit or offensive. Rather, they are topics that have been restricted due to social or religious customs, even though they are harmless. Common taboos in marketing include sexual or reproductive health, diet allergies or preferences, products related to death, bathroom habits, tattoos, mental health, etc. 

But, if your product or service is relevant, it’s important to use taboos. If you look at the list above, most of what we listed are things that most people will want or need at some point in their lives. Instead of scouring the internet for options, you can use marketing to show them how you’re offering the best and that you’re not afraid to be honest about meeting their needs. 

A great example of this is the way feminine hygiene products are advertised. You’re probably used to seeing those ads where someone pours blue ink over a piece of cotton towel to show how absorbent their sanitary towels are. For most women, this is offensive. Older generations and men have been found to find talking about and seeing sanitary pads explicitly to be uncomfortable. But, for the most part, these products aren’t for them. People were outraged when brands started making that ink red and pouring it onto the actual product being discussed. But for women who were actually in the market for these products, it was important for them to see how they looked, what shape and thickness they were, and how absorbent, before handing over their hard-earned coin. 

DO make it funny

When you’re using controversy in marketing, one technique is to make your audience smile. This will help them to let their guard down and take note of what you’re actually selling and how you’re being about it, rather than it being all about that controversial message. Every brand and audience will have their own set of ideas about what’s funny, but you only have to look at Red Bull, Wendys versus Burger King on Twitter and Ryan Reynolds to know how effective this can be. The beans on Weetbix campaign was also a massive winning success which even managed to get other big brands to market for them for free with recreations and memes. 

DO stay relevant 

What we mean here is that you shouldn’t jump on a bandwagon. If there is a recent issue that is in line with your product or service offering, and you can find a smart way to incorporate it into your marketing, then go ahead. But don’t be like Gillette diving onto the #MeToo movement just because. Their Be A Man campaign showed young boys fighting, men cat-calling uninterested women, men barbecuing… They then asked if this is the best men can get. While this was a nice sentiment, it also had nothing to do with selling shaving products. And it certainly had nothing to do with the fact that half of their clientele are also women. Because of this, it missed the mark and ultimately, the campaign had to be cut off early. 

DO check your tone-deafness

This is about reading the room. This isn’t about woke media or cancel culture, it’s just about using your common sense. Let’s chat about a common theme for sanitary pads and tampons, stomach flu medication and the morning-after pill. In absolutely none of these scenarios would you find a woman riding a horse, going for a run on the beach or getting down in club. And on top of that, you certainly wouldn’t find a woman buying the above products doing any of these activities in a wispy white dress. 

When it comes to creating controversial content, there are always gaps where internal prejudice can seep through. Set up a widely demographic focus group to review all of your content. They will quickly point out anything that is offensive or tone-deaf.

DO have a plan and be organised 

If you know your audience and industry well, chances are a well-thought-out piece of controversial marketing is going to be successful. However, there are always going to be those people who don’t appreciate what you’ve done. Make sure you plan for this. Work with your team to determine any sticky spots and have a game-plan for exactly how you can deal with any kind of complaint that comes your way. Be extra safe and even have an exit or cancellation strategy in case you unknowingly put something offensive out into the world. 

DO avoid confusion

This is a quick one. If you’re making a joke about a sensitive topic, do it with taste and make sure your audience knows you’re joking. And if you’re taking a stance in relation to your product or industry, make sure your position on that stance is clear. 

DON’T be offensive 

This ad didn’t make it to SA, so for those who haven’t seen it, let us paint a picture. You’re shown footage of a Black Lives Matter protest in the early months of 2020. The camera pans away from the protest to focus on Kendall Jenner being photographed on the street. She magically notices the protest happening right in front of her, and joins in, offering a police officer a Pepsi in the process. 

There was so much to unpack. Diverting attention away from an important human rights protest to focus on Kendall Jenner is one. Having Kendall Jenner show kindness to a police officer rather than a protester is another. Pepsi using the attention from the loss of multiple lives to sell their product is the biggest. 

Pepsi spent all that time, effort and cash on an offensive ad that had to be cancelled and taken down everywhere almost immediately. 

DON’T go too small 

If you’re going to go controversial, you’re going to want to go all the way. You want your customers and clients to know (without a doubt) that you have something to say and sell. Great examples of this are any ads that Poo-pourri makes. Not only is there a controversial word in the name of their actual brand, their flagship ad made a massive splash and everyone knows who they are and want to support them. 

It was a print ad that featured a woman sitting on the toilet with messaging along the lines of women also poop and shouldn’t pretend not to. And not only do women poop, their bathrooms need air freshener just as much as a bathroom used by men and children. This has been backed up by more and more big-statement ads about bathroom habits, as well as the fact that their product is affordable and top quality. 

DON’T use topics that aren’t relevant long-term

This is a no-brainer. You don’t want to set up an entire campaign after jumping on a trending bandwagon, only for the entirety of your campaign to be irrelevant a few weeks later. 

DON’T forget to connect back

This goes back to Gillette, Pepsi and more. Not every brand has to take a stance on everything. Choose what’s relevant to you, and don’t forget to use your marketing to make a connection between what you’re selling and the method you’re using to do that. Controversial marketing should be extremely purposeful. You and your customers and clients should know exactly how your message connects back to what you do. 

If you’re looking to run a controversial marketing campaign, but don’t know how to put the pieces together, write edgy copy, put hard-hitting creatives together or get your message in front of the right audiences, get in touch with us today for a campaign quote.