In early 2019, people tweeted pictures of razors submerged to the bottom of their toilet bowls. No, this wasn’t a crazy teenage challenge of getting dads late for work. It was a protest against Gillette’s latest advertisement dealing with toxic masculinity.
However, brands that create controversial advertisements like Gillette’s expect that kind of response from at least some people. Any attitude towards potentially sensitive social issues leads to disagreement.
But authentic advocacy for the causes you really believe in usually has more pros than cons.
“Even if publishing your beliefs marginalizes some potential customers, it creates deep loyalty for those who share your values - especially values like celebrating equality and inclusion that many people support regardless of political affiliation,” said Joe Lazauskas , Head of Content Strategy at Contently, wrote in an article following the divisive 2016 presidential election. “Same goes for the concern and support of the different people who work for you. Loyalty isn’t just a marketing metric. This is also important for measuring your company’s internal health. “
When done properly and from a place of real support, controversial ads can be an unexpected, emotional delight that can not only deepen your connection with your core audience, but also help you reach new audiences. For example, after Gillette posted her ad calling into question toxic masculinity, Adweek found that the campaign was most popular with women.
What is Controversial Advertising?
Controversial advertising is not aimed at polarizing an audience. It’s an attention-grabbing technique for expressing an opinion, and brands use it to have productive conversations about certain moral values. In recent years, any stance on potentially sensitive social issues can be viewed as controversial advertisements.
The psychology behind controversial advertising
People usually read and share content with opinions because it aligns with their own values. And by informing the world of their beliefs, they can solidify an ideal picture of themselves within their social circle and their own mind.
Opinion-related content also has a knack for getting people to think and taking other perspectives into account, which creates a more loyal audience because it can teach people something new and help shape their perspective on life.
Controversial ads can attract more attention than other types of ads, but if they perform poorly or perform well. However, they can adversely affect your brand. For example, consider SNL’s hilarious sketch by advertisers bringing commercial ideas to the snack brand Cheetos.
While SNL doesn’t specifically dwarf controversial advertisements, they make fun of the way brands use sensitive social topics to sell their products, rather than what they should be doing when addressing those kinds of topics – and encourage productive conversations.
Creating a controversial ad with a purely commercial motive is an easy way to get Kendall Jenner & Pepsi type feedback (we’ll cover this later). In other words, it can create harsh backlash and bad advertising instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue.
How do you avoid this type of negative reaction when trying to create a controversial advertising campaign? Below we analyze three controversial advertising examples that work and two that don’t help you support the causes you really believe in and better connect with audiences.
Controversial promotional samples that work
1. Anheuser-Busch | Born the hard way
Anheuser-Busch’s ad about the genesis of its founder lets people see that something as fundamentally American as Budweiser beer can have immigrant roots.
Budweiser is often associated with issues of American patriotism. The stance on immigration, which is a controversial issue in the United States, therefore contradicted some of the political beliefs of the brand’s most loyal customers. However, that social stance also sparked meaningful dialogue about how immigrants started some of America’s most iconic brands.
By telling a gripping and emotional story about how their business started, Anheuser-Busch could take a stand on an important topic that is essential to their brand and connect with the people who understand that the US is a country of immigrants and the advertiser helped more than 21.7 million views in just three days.
2. Nike | Dream crazy
“To believe in something, even if it means to sacrifice everything” is an exact life motto for Colin Kaepernick, a professional American football player. He fueled controversy in the 2016 NFL season by kneeling during the national anthem before the start of each game to protest racial inequality.
Unfortunately, all of the controversies associated with him have categorically banned him from the NFL – no team has not signed him since his controversial 2016 season. Admirably, he still stands up for the causes he supported during his protests.
Along with Kaepernick’s story, Nike’s “Dream Crazy” takes up other stories from athletes who followed ambitious dreams to later success. And Nike made it clear that they want to help Colin Kaepernick achieve his dream of a just world, no matter how crazy it seems.
“Dream Crazy” was very controversial, but it resonated with millions of people. Just days after the ad was posted, Nike sales soared 31% despite videos of their gear on fire that were shared on social media.
3. Heineken | Worlds apart
In Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” people were brought together and asked to build stools and a bar together. After they completed the activity and established some relationship with each other, recorded videos started playing, showing that their political views were, in fact, the exact opposite of each other. They were then asked if they would discuss their differences over a beer. Everyone said a resounding “yes”.
It is a risky endeavor to run an ad where people with such different political views are actually engaging in meaningful dialogue rather than just belittling one another. Many people have a fiery passion for their political beliefs and will not bond with people who disagree with them. But that’s ultimately why Worlds Apart received rave reviews and has been called the “Antidote to Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Ad”. It focuses on putting our differences aside in order to work together for a bigger cause, not Heineken’s product.
4. Burger King | Whopper neutrality
The net neutrality regime was lifted in the United States in 2018. Before making this decision, many Americans debated whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing, but many others did not understand what it was about.
With its “Whopper neutrality” analogy, Burger King wanted to explain and convince customers that customers pay a premium in order to have their food delivered quickly.
While net neutrality is irrelevant to burgers, the campaign resulted in $ 67 million in media earned and 3.8% revenue growth – while stimulating conversation between common people and celebrities on the subject.
5. Poo ~ Pourri | Girls don’t poop
It is not every day that you see a post in which the protagonist is sitting on the toilet. Culturally, going to the bathroom is an “inappropriate” or “gross” issue. Even so, Poo ~ Pourri puts it at the center of their odor removal product.
Needless to say, this could have gone bad. The comic dialogue, the impeccable production and the lovable relativity, however, were positively received by the audience. In fact, it was viewed 17 million times in just one month.
6. Lane Bryant | #ThisBody
In 2016, Lane Bryant launched her #ThisBody campaign, promoting her oversized clothing line in conjunction with radical body positivity. The ad includes several oversized models explaining how they are feeling about their bodies and what they can do to change cultural perceptions and fight back against body embarrassment. However, the ad was pulled by ABC and NBC because of “too much skin”. Critics claimed the ad was no riskier than other underwear ads.
The networks suggested re-broadcasting the ad once Lane Bryant made some minor changes. The retailer turned it down, however, and instead launched her on social media, where she received a viral level of positive engagement.
Controversial promotional examples that don’t work
1. Pepsi | Live for the now
If you think about it long and hard, could a can of Pepsi really fix the complex rifts that currently divide the whole world? No Not at all. Worse still, is Kendall Jenner really an integral part of any social justice movement, or was she just there because she’s a famous celebrity who can grab almost anyone’s attention? You probably know the answer to that question by now.
After receiving five times as many downvotes as upvotes on YouTube and a flurry of bad advertising and negative responses on social media, Pepsi removed the ad from their channel just hours after it was posted.
If you want to avoid this type of reaction when creating controversial content, don’t stress your product more than the issue at hand. All of the ads are technically self-contained, but people will be able to spot excessively promotional fluff masquerading as social justice more quickly than clicking “Stop” on a pop-up ad. So, if you’re not really feeling condemned to support a certain social cause while creating controversial content, it’s best not to even get pen on paper.
2. Wonder mattress | Twin towers
Labor Day, Veterans Day, and even Memorial Day are major holidays for furniture sales. However, San Antonia mattress company Miracle Mattress created a controversial video to promote a sale on September 11th.
In the video, intended as a nervous parody, two stacks of double mattresses are knocked over and the Miracle Mattress operator says, “We will never forget.”
The ad was seen as tough rather than provocative, illuminating the lives lost on September 11th. The company faced severe media problems and then closed its doors.
3. Hyundai | Pipe job
Speaking of which, the whole goal of provocative narratives and imagery is to evoke, and indeed make, an emotional response.
Hyundai set out to do this by launching an ad that attempted suicide to reduce emissions. The man shown in the ad could not kill himself as the exhaust was mostly harmless water vapor.
The ad was drawn after just one day of broadcasting, criticized as disruptive at best, and ridiculed at worst as survivors of suicide attempts and survivors of suicide losses.
4. Nationwide | Boy
It starts out as an adorable story about a boy who appears to be lacking in confidence, but Nationwide’s “Boy” goes shockingly dark when it is revealed that the main character cannot live a normal childhood because he is, in fact, dead.
Child accidents are a serious problem that should be addressed, but this ad has been criticized for being too scary and manipulative – it literally uses child deaths to sell insurance.
Even if your ad highlights a common problem, make sure a potentially sensitive problem isn’t being exploited just to sell more products. Otherwise, it may be crowned the worst advertisement of the year.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2019 and has been updated for completeness.