There’s no such thing as bad publicity, as the old saying goes. 

Whether this holds true in branding is debatable, though. Campaigns that generate controversy – whether on purpose or accidentally – can lead to massively increased brand visibility. In principle, that’s great.

Unfortunately, almost all of the recent research shows that consumers today, and especially younger groups, want the brands they buy from to have a strong social conscience. Being mired in controversy might make millennials notice your brand, but they might also decide to boycott it.

Designing controversial campaigns can be extremely difficult, but in this article we’ll look at some basic principles that will help you to avoid the wrong kind of publicity.


The Value of Controversy


When it comes to assessing the value of controversy to brands, there is a huge difficulty: how can you assign a monetary value to people being annoyed?

Though large-scale surveys on the monetary value of controversy are impossible to find, in looking at individual, controversial campaigns it’s obvious that controversy has a value. It might be difficult to measure extra sales generated as the result of heated arguments, but it is certainly possible to see that customers’ loyalty and association to a brand can be increased during this kind of campaign.

That’s not true for every single controversial campaign, of course. Most brands still seek to avoid controversy wherever possible, because it is undoubtedly a risky strategy. This means that in the vast majority of cases controversial campaigns were not designed to be so. Examples of this are everywhere, from Bud Light’s “Up For Anything” campaign (accused of promoting rape), through Nivea’s “White is Purity” ads (accused of racism), to Dove’s recent lotion campaign (also accused of racism).

Perhaps the most visible example of accidental controversy, though, was Protein World’s “Beach Body Ready” ads, which sparked worldwide protests. The ad was the subject of a huge and vociferous backlash on social media, the billboards were vandalized, and it became so iconic of tone-deaf advertising that the tagline and format was eventually re-used by a plus-size fashion brand. But here’s the thing: Protein World went on to make a reported £1 million profit from the £250,000 they spent on the advertising campaign.

A more purposeful example of a successful controversial campaign – and indeed perhaps the model for this type of campaign – has been Nike’s “Believe in Something” ads. They used an image of Colin Kaepernick, who inspired a player protest movement by kneeling during the national anthem during games. It was a strategy that risked creating a huge controversy, and it did. Given Nike’s huge customer base, it was inevitable that some of theit (previously loyal) customers would be turned off, and indeed many people thought that the campaign was in bad taste

Nike knew this, though, and the campaign was incredibly successful precisely because of the controversy it generated, especially among Millennial and Gen Z consumers. The campaign, which was announced in a simple tweet by Kaepernick, generated at least $43 million in free advertising for Nike. Sales skyrocketed by 31%, and Nike’s stock price hit an all-time high in the aftermath of the ad.

Taboo vs. Social Issues


It’s clear, then, that controversy can have huge value for brands. Designing a campaign to be controversial, though, is a little more tricky. The problem lies not so much finding a controversial issue – we all know what those are – but in picking the right issue, and then approaching it in the right way.

When deciding on an issue for a controversial campaign, there are essentially two approaches. You can either choose a subject that is taboo, or you can pick a social issue which your customers feel strongly about. 

The first approach – addressing a taboo – is less popular, but can be successful. Poo-Pourri’s “Girls Don’t Poop,” which featured a stylish woman sitting on a toilet discussing dropping the “motherload” at work and other challenges of using the bathroom, is a good example of this. The ad was a viral success, having been viewed more than 40 million times on YouTube and winning several awards. 

The second approach is to choose a social issue which causes controversy in itself. Arguably the stand-out example of this approach (beyond Nike’s campaign, above) has been the Benetton Group’s “Unhate” campaign, which used images of political and religious leaders kissing. Benetton have a history of producing this kind of high-concept campaign, and knew that it would be controversial. They likely didn’t anticipate the sheer scale of the ensuing controversy, however, which led to people tearing the ads down (but also the coveted Cannes  Ad Festival Award).

There is some pretty simple advice when it comes to choosing between these two approaches: go for a social issue.

That might sound like simplistic advice, but there is reasoning behind it. As we’ve previously pointed out [link to social engagement article], engaging with social issues has benefits beyond ‘merely’ generating controversy. It also signals your brand values, and increases the association of your customers with your brand.

Defusing The Backlash


When it comes to the practical considerations of designing a controversial campaign, there are several principles to keep in mind. The majority of these are shared with the kind of socially engaged campaign that we have previously written about.

In brief, a controversial campaign should stick to the facts on a particular issue to avoid being seen as a cynical attempt to use it for advertising. These campaigns should also include, at their very core, opportunities for your customers to engage with the issue you are raising, and you should actively encourage this discussion. You should also make sure that everyone in your company is well-briefed on the issue you are addressing, and prepared to defend the stance you are taking.

These principles are shared with socially engaged campaigns, but controversial campaigns come with another huge risk: the backlash you are going to generate.

Managing this backlash should be part of your strategy from the beginning of your campaign, and should include a few key elements. Principally, you should strike a balance between signaling your values and taking on board fair criticism of them. If you back away from an issue at the first sign of trouble, you risk looking like you don’t honestly care for it. If you are too aggressive in sticking to your values in the face of well-intentioned criticism, you risk looking overly partisan. It’s worth noting, in this regard, that Benetton flatly refused to back down even during the huge controversy generated by their “Unhate” campaign, and that this was part of its success.

In managing the controversy you produce, you should also pay attention to where the most aggressive vitriol is found, and we all know the answer to that question: social media.

This might seem like a basic observation, but it has huge consequences. The fact is that even the most strident criticism of your position can be defused by allowing your customers to meet your employees, and directly engage with your brand. Even the most seasoned ‘keyboard warrior’ finds it difficult to maintain their aggressive tone when faced with genuine opportunities for dialog. 

For this reason, immersive experiences and pop-up events are incredibly valuable during controversial campaigns. They allow your customers to directly engage with the work you are doing and the stance you are taking, and simply offer a more constructive, open forum for discussion than the average Twitter storm. Including this kind of event in a controversial campaign also means that your customers can see that you are serious about the issue you have raised, rather than merely leveraging the ‘controversy machine’ that is social media.

Going Further 


Here at MCI, we’ve worked on dozens of controversial branding campaigns, and have an intimate knowledge of how to plan and implement them. If you are interested in using this kind of campaign, take a look at our guide to planning controversial campaigns, where we will take you through this process step by step.

Then, when you are ready, give us a call. We can help you develop your ideas into a fully-fledged campaign that is as controversial as you want it to be!