When It Pays to Go Controversial

Posted on August 26, 2014 by Lara S

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When Oreo surprised Facebook fans with a layered rainbow cookie in support of gay pride in 2012, the predictable threats of boycotts followed. However, if people really did pull their support, it was hard to notice. In the days that followed the post, Oreo’s number of new fans per day doubled.

While marketers are counseled to avoid controversy, Oreo’s success with the cookie and other controversial marketing has shown that, far from hurting brands, controversy can actually bring support. But controversial posts need to be handled properly to be effective.

Tone Matters

A video that strives to take on sexist phrasing is a risky venture. But, in an new video from Always, the phrase “like a girl” is examined in a thought-provoking manner that has generated widespread support. The secret? The positive and hopeful spin achieved by showing young girls who had not yet had the negative connotations of this phrase embedded in their worldview. The video has, as of this post, nearly 35 million views, and has been shared by such influential woman as Chelsea Clinton, Melinda Gates and Sarah Silverman.

Why does this ad work when other controversial approaches, such as the McDonald’s poster based on a mental illness PSA, failed? I believe that it’s because the messages in the successful ads support a group, instead of tearing someone down. Before running with controversy, particularly if your chosen tack is a humorous one, ask yourself whether an ad can be interpreted as mean-spirited. While marketing has changed a lot in the past decade, it will still always be more effective to make people feel good, rather than attacking.

Putting This to Work for Your Brand

Thinking that you would like the traffic bump that comes from a controversial ad? While there is inherent risk, there are ways to work that can make success more likely:

  • Speak up for a position you believe in. When One Million Moms organized a boycott of JCPenney in response to their hiring Ellen DeGeneres, the retailer doubled down with a Father’s Day ad that showed two dads. By defending their principles, JCPenney turned controversy into a positive.
  • Know your subject. Tone deaf or ill-informed work will backfire. Hire politics bloggers who are familiar with current events to make sure your message is authentic.
  • Always build your readers up. A negative controversial message will create a backlash. A positive one, a viral campaign.

Lara S is a content writer and blogger. She’s written professionally since 1998 and specializes in creating reader-friendly posts for complex industries like healthcare, law, and insurance. On the weekends, you’re likely to find her out on her sailboat or ensconced in bed with a book.


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