The Dos and Don’ts of Controversial Marketing

In one of the most talked-about ads in recent memory, reality star Kendall Jenner walks off a photoshoot to join a crowded protest. The demonstration eventually comes to a halt in front of a line of policemen, so Jenner walks up to an officer and tries to make peace with … a can of Pepsi.

People like to say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But even though the clip had more than 1.6 million views on YouTube after only a few hours, it generated five times as many downvotes as upvotes. In less than 24 hours, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology.

Less than a month later, Heineken explored somewhat similar territory in an ad—but to rave reviews. In “Worlds Apart,” pairs of strangers were asked to complete an activity together before they found out they had opposing political views. Each pair was then offered the opportunity to sit down and engage in a discussion over a beer or leave. All of them chose to stay and discuss their differences.

The big difference between the ads is how they incorporated a controversial topic. Honesty and self-awareness are two crucial but undervalued aspects of storytelling. Heineken asked regular people to have a discussion over a drink. Pepsi, meanwhile, focused more on the drink itself and used a celebrity spokesperson who doesn’t have any connection to politics. Marketers can learn a lot from both approaches.

Why controversy works

The most effective content gets people talking, which is the innate appeal in something controversial. It’s guaranteed to trigger an emotional response from the audience. People tend to click, read, and share because they have an opinion and want the rest of the world to know about it.

In a 2014 study, researchers Jonah Berger and Zoey Chen analyzed more than 200 articles to see how controversy impacted engagement levels. Their results indicated that low-level controversy encourages engagement, but anything beyond that decreases the likelihood of high engagement.

So how can brands produce something that hits the sweet spot?

The answer to that question is deceptively complex. On a basic level, they need to choose the “right” type of controversy. There are three different ways to approach controversial content effectively.

1. Disprove an easily held assumption

This kind of content often focuses on delivering surprising results. Consider “Hotel Hygiene Exposed,” a campaign created for Travelmath, an online trip calculator. Travelmath set out to answer a key question for consumers planing their next vacation: Which hotel rooms are the dirtiest?

The campaign had the potential to create controversy, particularly from mad hotel owners, but Travelmath understood that customer’s interest in travel transparency would outweigh any backlash. More than 30 samples collected from nine different hotels proved that five-star hotels actually have the most germs, which caught the eye of big-name publishers like AOL, Yahoo, and Today.

2. Pull the curtain back on something taboo

This kind of content focuses on a topic that isn’t often discussed publicly. There is arguably no brand doing this better than the team at Poo-Pourri. They’ve built their brand on taboo content, with videos like “Imagine Where You Can Go” that generate millions of YouTube views and plenty of positive feedback.

3. Ignite a debate

This content presents data from both sides of an argument and allows viewers to discuss and draw their own conclusions. For example, this campaign for ABODO—a platform used to locate apartments—takes a closer look at values and tolerance across America through a unique lens: Twitter.

To educate apartment-hunters interested in learning more about their potential neighbors, the brand scraped more than 12 million tweets and revealed which areas use the most prejudiced and derogatory language across the country. This prompted an online discussion that led to more than 620 earned media placements and 67,000 social shares.

How to minimize backlash

Even with all of these success stories, it’s hard to shake off visions of torch-wielding internet trolls. The most effective controversial campaigns have built-in safety nets. And there are things all marketers should consider before pushing the envelope.

Going in with a hidden agenda is usually a red flag. All marketing is supposed to lead to revenue, either directly or indirectly, but people don’t respond kindly to anything too self-serving. This is especially true for polarizing content. If we think back to Pepsi, the premise of Kendall Jenner’s ad had the potential to succeed, but it emphasized the product too much rather than encouraging a discussion between two groups. The premise of “Pepsi will solve police-community relationships” is a much harder pill to swallow than an experiment that shows people working together, sponsored by Heineken.

Although you can’t guarantee how audiences will respond to controversy, brands interested in pursuing polarizing content should use the past as a blueprint for what works and what leads to bad publicity. When done right, controversial content comes off as both unexpected and emotional—two essential elements in highly shareable content. Controversy is the route less traveled for a reason, but as long as your content encourages a respectful discussion, the risk can pay off in a big way.


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