Courting Controversy: 4 Questions to Ask Before Approaching Tough Topics

Some brands make their name wading in on controversial topics. Others, not so much… Here are 4 questions to ask yourself before setting up that risky campaign

Kira Hawker

They used to say that all publicity is good publicity but, in today’s world, even the smallest slip up is amplified more than anyone could have imagined. In the past two weeks alone, we’ve seen gambling company Paddy Power take on the plight of the polar bears, and Mastercard’s latest charity idea of goals for meals leave a lot of people with a sour taste.

It seems like every week a different brand wades in on a topic with a political or sociological emphasis, and every week someone gets it wrong. In the realm of social media sharing, bad marketing decisions and misguided copy choices cannot be brushed under the carpet. These campaigns find their place online and stay there, being inaugurated into many Word’s Worst Campaign Fails lists.

Having said that, courting controversy is not always a bad idea. There are some brands who broach contentious subjects and do it well, edging conversations from the peripherals to the mainstream and creating a necessary debate. Whether you fall into the former or the latter requires deep thinking into your brand’s motives and opinions and whether these will be received well by your demographic as well as the wider internet audience.

Here, are our top 4 questions to ask yourself before you start waxing lyrical about the next big polemical topic.

How controversial is the subject?

There are levels of controversy when it comes to the subject of your campaign. There’s a difference between shock or taboo topics and those that are simply debateable.

For example, race and gender issues are very much in the forefront of people’s minds in 2018, discussed by people of all ages and from all backgrounds. But, does that mean it’s the right topic to capitalise on for a marketing campaign?

In short, the answer lies with your brand, audience and vertical market. Topics like race, religion and politics are definitely controversial, however there are many layers to each of them. For example, independent brands may feel it suits their sense of community to wade into local politics and conversations about public-centric issues. Whereas large, multinational brands may have the clout needed to talk about worldwide issues.

One That Worked:

Oreo courted controversy by showing their stance on sexuality with a Facebook post for Gay Pride day. The Oreo’s very famous creamy middle was edited into bright rainbow colours with the caption “Proudly support love”.

Sexuality is still a contentious subject for many and Oreo showing these colours could be seen as controversial. After all, what do Oreos have to do with Gay Pride? However, the light-hearted tone and the brand’s willingness to change their classic colours in order to promote equality was seen by most as a positive way of showing their stance and starting a conversation.

One That Didn’t:

We’ve all seen this one doing the rounds, but it’s hard not to include it in this piece because of its obvious ignorance to an extremely poignant topic. Pepsi is an enormous worldwide brand, which may have led them into thinking they could broach such a controversial subject. But, as we all know, it did not work.

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, race relations in America are at boiling point since the deaths of black men like Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile. The Pepsi campaign seemed to belittle the struggle of the subsequent #BlackLivesMatter movement by seemingly suggesting that a can of Pepsi could quell some rage – all it managed to do was ignite it. Secondly, one of the most argued points of this campaign was the use of Kendall Jenner, whose family is perceived by some to be the epitome of privilege. Hoping to emulate the famous image of a hippie putting a flower into a soldier’s gun barrel, it missed the mark in spectacular fashion.

What does your brand add to the topic?

Some marketing campaigns are so loosely-related to the subject matter they are confronting that it can appear to be a rather underhanded way of capitalising on it. For example, when Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher sadly passed away in December 2016, some brands chose to move in on her death as a way to market their products whilst seemingly under the guise of memorialising her. Cinnabon was one such company, and their tweet was met with a staunch backlash.

Essentially, your brand needs to add something important or at least relevant to the subject matter, particularly with regards to controversial topics. There is a danger of looking shallow when taking advantage of a pop culture or sociological subject in a marketing campaign. It is wise to ask yourself whether your brand can be aligned with a topic and add something tangible to the conversation.

One That Worked:

Airbnb’s We Accept campaign capitalises on the topic of race and religious relations to demonstrate their policy of inclusivity. The simple campaign features a video showing close ups of faces of all nationalities, ages, religions and styles to show that anyone is accepted in an Airbnb home.

The campaign was teamed with a charity drive, with Airbnb pledging $4million to the International Rescue Committee and short-term housing for 100,000 refugees. With refugees and immigration one of the most talked about – and controversial – topics of recent history, the campaign has continued the much-needed discussion of humanity in the face of displacement.

Furthermore, Airbnb used this campaign as a type of damage control after many people said they were refused reservations on the website due to the colour of their skin. Not only were Airbnb able to tackle a highly controversial subject, they were also able to try and dispel some of their own controversy.

One That Didn’t:

A recent example of a brand that perhaps did not add what they hoped to a campaign is Lush. The hugely popular cosmetics brand is well known for being environmentally-friendly and highly eco-conscious. You may expect them to enter into the world of online activism, but their 2018 campaign about an undercover police scandal seemed to come very much out of leftfield.

The Spy Police campaign piggy-backed off a blog article on the Lush website that investigated claims of undercover police infiltrating activist groups by maintaining false relationships with women in these groups. Although a topic that needs a light shone onto it, Lush approached it all-guns-blazing. They changed their store POS to fake police tape, images of policemen spliced with frightening-looking spies. They changed their website images to gritty pictures of women being questioned and pushed a hashtag online. They wanted to start a conversation about a topic they felt close to, but it led to an enormous backlash from people who felt the campaign generalised the police and suggested they were not to be trusted. Many felt that in the current climate the police should not be maligned in this way.

Moreover, people questioned why Lush felt they needed to throw themselves into a subject that has pretty much no correlation to their product. Perhaps if Lush had either embraced the topic in a less full-on fashion or stuck to topics they were affiliated with – like the environment and fair trade – it would not have caused such an uproar.

Will the campaign resonate with your audience?

The target of any marketing campaign is obviously to push your brand and lead to revenue for your company. If you choose to use a controversial subject to this end, it must resonate with your audience if it is to be effective. We have already looked at controversial campaigns that missed the mark by not understanding the topic, but it could be said that any campaign that seemed not to work just didn’t understand what their audience would respond to positively.

Not knowing your audience is a frequent pitfall for brands and proving to your customers that you don’t understand them leads to a mistrust and therefore a loss of existing and potential customers. Ask yourself what your audience wants, does not want, likes and does not like. You should have this information handy anyway, as you will have probably done a study of your buyer personas or looked at your data to determine more about your demographic. Use this information to your advantage – don’t just look at a campaign as a means to make money, but also as a way to breed advocacy. Make them see your campaign and think, “I like this, they get me.”

One That Worked:

Women’s issues and gender equality has been one of the most widely-discussed topics in the world today. Brands from all markets have moved to make their stance on women’s issues, in light of the enormous reach of the #MeToo campaign. Sanitary product manufacturer Always created a touching campaign highlighting how women’s perception of the abilities of their gender chance as they reach adolescence and beyond.

When asked to run ‘like a girl’, or fight ‘like a girl’, grown men and women put on exaggerated displays of perceived girliness, only to be undone when female children approach these tasks with strength and determination. Suffice it to say, it was seen as an eye-opener by many.

Always have shed light on a highly-important issue whilst also showing understanding of their audience. Not only are periods still a taboo subject (for some strange reason), but how we choose to build up our mothers, sisters and daughters is coming increasingly to the fore.

The response to the #LikeAGirl campaign was overwhelmingly positive and certainly showed how Always was able to capitalise on a very controversial subject in a heart-rending and thought-provoking way.

One That Didn’t:

One of the most important elements of a brand marketing strategy is to be current and relevant. The world changes at an exponential rate and your core audience now might be very different from what it was twenty years ago. One such example is the rather ill-informed and insensitive wording of nappy company Huggies’ “Put Huggies to the Dad Test” campaign.

Twenty or thirty years ago, women were still very much a child’s main caregiver, but things have changed a great deal and fathers take on a hugely different role. It seems as though someone forgot to tell Huggies, as they embraced a marketing campaign that belittled fathers’ impact in their child’s life.

Insinuating that dads were baffled by even the most basic childcare techniques – even putting on a nappy – created massive discontent among both men and women, who felt dads deserved a great deal more credit. The campaign also ignored male same-sex relationships; which itself could have made an excellent campaign that both spoke to contemporary life in 2018 and broached a topic of controversy.

Could the campaign be misunderstood?

We all know what it’s like to send a text or an email that sounds nice in your head but when you read it back, it sounds totally different. Brands are not exempt from this rule! What you think sounds funny and sarcastic as a tagline, may be misunderstood either by your own audience or by international demographics.

Inflection, tone and even the very basis of the campaign has to be vetted properly. There are many phrases and customs that are acceptable in one territory that may be taken wrongly in another. If you intend on rolling out an international marketing campaign about a controversial subject, ensure you understand how that issue is perceived across the globe, particularly in countries you intend to market to.

Country-specific marketing aside, the direct message of your campaign may itself be misunderstood by even your local audience. Trial your campaign on test audiences, work hard with your PR staff to understand how every audience is likely to understand it and, above all, if there is any chance it could be misconstrued in a damaging way, go back to the drawing board and find a more tangible way to promote your message, however controversial the topic may be.

One That Worked:

Breaking down stereotypes is an excellent way to change opinion and start conversation. Controversial subjects like race, religion and political leanings are often subjects we debate with one another over a few drinks, and Heineken decided to move in on these subjects in an innovative way.

Bringing together polar opposites to take on tasks, but not revealing their opposing viewpoints until after they have chatted and begun to get along, demonstrated how easy it is to become friends with someone when pre-conceived notions are set aside.

This campaign could have easily been misunderstood, and did indeed elicit some negative feedback, but it took the bull by the horns in a truly inspirational way. It worked in almost direct opposition to the previously mentioned Pepsi advert which was somewhat tone deaf. Heineken took a similar message and made it real. It showed real people coming together to discuss timely topics without showing a political hand outright – and what did they do at the end of the advert? Asked them whether they wanted to sit down and discuss their differences over a bottle of Heineken.

One That Didn’t:

With their heart seemingly in the right place, Mastercard’s Goals for Meals campaign showed stark insensitivity to the topic at hand. World hunger, particularly where children are concerned, is heart-breaking and many people want to do whatever they can to help alleviate this issue. However, Mastercard appear to have missed the mark in a massive way when promising up to 10,000 meals for hungry children… if Messi or Neymar score a goal.

This campaign created an enormous backlash as audiences questioned why exactly it fell upon the talents of two footballers in order for children to eat. Viewers asked why Mastercard, a financial powerhouse, couldn’t simply offer money for the meals without requiring the incentive of a goal.

The brand was probably looking to capitalise on the World Cup, tying in a huge sporting event to a charity drive. However, it left many feeling as though Mastercard were passing the buck. A number of social media posts questioned how the goalkeepers were supposed to feel upon saving a goal and thereby stopping a child from eating. Whilst this response is somewhat dramatic, it underlines a misunderstanding of the campaign’s message, with the blame falling purely on Mastercard.

How can you avoid these pitfalls?

Ask yourself each of the questions above and really think about how you are going to embrace controversy without looking foolish or creating discontent among your audience. It may be of some comfort to see that even the biggest brands can make mistakes, but you can indeed avoid these pitfalls without losing some of the edge that comes with controversial campaigns.

Some brands have made their names on being controversial, aware that they are bound to annoy someone – look at anything by United Colours of Benetton for example. Having said that, there have been some brands that have been derailed by their less-than-ideal foray into contentious subjects.

Simply put, be prepared, think things through and promote diversity throughout your brand. Use cultural and social differences to your advantage, embracing the opportunity to learn and grow with one another, therefore better understanding the unique feelings of your wider audience. You can court controversy – but do it carefully.