When Penis Jokes Enhance Your Brand, And When They Don’t

businessweekcoverControversy is the world’s most powerful conversation starter. That’s why publishers go to great lengths to push readers out of their comfort zones. It makes the whole thing more memorable.

When publishers want to stir people up, they mean business. On the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek’s July 15 issue, hedge fund managers (and their very serious corporate culture) became the “butt of a joke,” to use Mashable’s words. Through some not so subtle allusions to male anatomy, the publisher reinforced the following argument from writer Sheelah Kolhatkar:

“Hedge funds may have gotten too big for their yachts, for their market, and for their own possibilities for success. After a decade as rock stars, hedge fund managers seem to be fading just as quickly as musicians do.”

The phallic imagery caught the media-verse off guard, stirring up reactions in both highly positive and highly negative directions in the forms of unbridled hilarity and complete disgust. As one article commenter put it:

“I don’t even care about the story, this graphic is amazing.”

When publishers want to stir people up, they mean business.

For publishers, controversy is second nature, but for brands, it’s a tough-to-maneuver gray area. Any time brand journalists jump into off-color territory, they take a major risk of exposure to bad reactions and bad press. Chapstick’s Butt ad from 2011, for example, resulted in a social media snafu. Yet, conversely, Cottonelle’s decision to pay to promote a Gawker rant decrying the rise in “butt wipes” marketed to adults was generally considered savvy content marketing — perhaps because the brand itself hadn’t authored the original piece, or perhaps because it wasn’t too off-brand for a toilet paper company in the first place.

When it comes to content that may be considered crude, tasteless, or otherwise controversial, publishers and and brands are in opposite worlds. For brands, pissing off an online community means pissing off customers, which has a direct impact on sales. Publishers, on the other hand, monetize through advertising dollars — the more readers, happy or unhappy, the merrier.

But here’s the problem. G-rated content that’s guaranteed not to displease anybody is at major risk for being horribly boring; it doesn’t matter if it comes from a Fortune 100 brand or the New York Times. Good content inspires people on a human-to-human level. There’s a reason why the incredibly frank “Camp Gyno” YouTube video for a tampon delivery company, complete with dialogue that would’ve never been approved for a television ad (“It’s like Santa for your vagina!”) was met with such an overwhelmingly positive reception. It was nothing like the whitewashed, giggly commercials that are characteristic of feminine hygiene products.

For a content marketer, deciding whether to publish potentially off-color content really all comes down to whether it’s characteristic of the company, its voice, and its demographic. Fratty deodorant brand Axe has significantly more wiggle room for controversial humor than, say, a department store brand that targets families. (And even Axe gets its fair share of criticism.)

The other rule of thumb is that content designed to spark buzz and light-hearted controversy can’t just be doing so for the sake of that buzz and controversy. It still needs to be relevant to the reader — not only should they be compelled to laugh and snort coffee out of their noses onto their keyboards, but ideally they’ll be learning something too.

Image by Peter Zijlstra /
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