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4 deliberately controversial ad campaigns

Carrie Reichenthal
4 deliberately controversial ad campaigns Carrie Reichenthal

Many brands these days are using cutting-edge marketing tactics to engage viewers and create intense reactions. Sometimes, these tactics are offensive and incendiary, creating a large divide between customer and brand. Other times, the publicity garnered by such controversial ads serves as a major boost for brand sales (presumably driving deeper belief in the old adage, "there's no such thing as bad publicity").

In this article, industry experts weigh in on online marketing campaigns that relied on controversy or offensive strategies to drive their marketing message. They also comment on how effective the tactic seemed to be and whether it paid off in the long run for the company. Read on to find out which brands were effective in stirring the pot.

By Denise E. Zimmerman, NetPlus

What's in a name? With a brand such as French Connection (FCUK), you expect a certain level of in-your-face, bold, irreverent, and even offensive missives. So it's no surprise that FCUK is on the front lines in terms of risk-taking and stirring up a bit of controversy in its messaging and marketing. It is also then no surprise that French Connection lined up as one of the first brands to test out the marketing prowess of Chatroulette -- the highly controversial chat platform -- with a promotion back in March 2010.

The promotion featured a shopping spree worth $375 to the winner who "hooked up" using Chatroulette to set up a date. For those of you who might not be familiar with Chatroulette, it is a webcam social network, widely known for its pornographic content where random strangers "meet" each other. It is a risky and uncontrollable environment. The tease posted on the brand's website for the promotion reads, "Can you prove yourself by venturing into the most terrifying terrain on the internet to seduce a woman?" Now that's bold -- and controversial.

But FCUK embraces this line of marketing with full disclosure and awareness -- the risk to the brand is minimal given its brand and message platform.

Was it successful?

To a brand like FCUK, the controversy and media exposure are benefits. There aren't many brands that could or would say the same. It is probably fair to say that the campaign did not have a measurable impact on the brand's level of engagement, conversions, or sales -- based on what has been reported and is publicly available. But at the time, it was reported that French Connection had "thousands" of entries, and the contest attracted international media attention with articles in Ad Age and posts from bloggers such as Perez Hilton.

It was also reported that the FCUK blog's traffic increased by 300 percent. But even now if you look at the archives, there are only a few comments here and there about the contest. So, that 300 percent traffic increase came from where and went to where? Regardless, it is all relative considering the media exposure benefit to the brand's persona. And the level of investment was most likely minimal to start.

The bottom line? If controversy isn't part of your brand platform and your customers are not going to respond positively or embrace it, then why the FCUK would you do it?

French Connection Manifesto blog

Denise E. Zimmerman is president and CSO of NetPlus.

By Doug Schumacher, Basement

The obvious thing you notice when looking at controversial advertising is that most of it doesn't involve online banners (well, except for those bizarre shaking belly ads). Most of the controversial marketing online comes in the form of websites or microsites. That speaks to the lack of emotion conveyed in the banner format, certainly relative to a website.

One controversial online marketing campaign that I both remember and think actually worked is Axe advertising -- categorically. Like most great campaigns, it's not exactly online or offline, but a blend. It just is.

While much of the brand's marketing is equal parts silliness and sexuality, the controversy stems from the frequent sexual themes that are inevitably going to reach a crowd much younger than the brand's stated 18-24 male demographic.

Does it work? Well, Axe has been running in this direction for more than 10 years now, and there's no shortage of case studies extolling the campaign's success . After all, it is filling young guys' imaginations with the promise of meeting beautiful women. Furthermore, it must be great advertising to actually convince guys to put anything on their body that smells like that.

Doug Schumacher is the founder and creative director of Basement.

By Steve Wax, Campfire

It's hard to find anyone who wasn't upset by the recent Groupon Super Bowl ad from Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The company's Tibet ad, with Timothy Hutton, generated these sorts of comments:

  • "This epic fail of GroupOn... and their ad agency -- is going to go down in history as the most immature and ill-conceived mess of our times." - Patrickmahoney

  • "Shame on you for exploiting the misery of the Tibetan people to advertise your company. If this is the sensitivity you have for others, you surely can't be a company I want to do business with. Take me off your email list and see if you can find a way to benefit the Tibetan people instead of exploiting them for your gain." - Nick

A few polls reflected the same attitude:

  • Huffington Post poll: 49 percent of those who voted, said "completely inappropriate." 25 percent said "wrong to an extent."

  • NPR poll: 69 percent said "offensive."

The snarkiness was breathtaking -- and was brought about in fewer than 15 seconds. Hutton's narration went from talking sympathetically about the plight of Tibetan refugees -- "Mountainous Tibet, one of the most beautiful places in the world... The people of Tibet are in trouble; their very culture is in jeopardy..." -- to a Tibetan restaurant where Hutton announces "But they still whip up an amazing fish curry -- and since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com, we're each getting $30 bucks of Tibetan food for just $15 dollars!"

The ad definitely crossed the line. In fact, the line was long gone by the time the spot ended. But I'm not convinced this was all bad for the Groupon brand -- even though its CEO soon apologized and pulled the spots.

Here's why it wasn't all bad for the brand:

1. It got a lot of attention for the brand. Isn't that the first step in launching a successful marketing campaign? Attention?
2. The portrait of Groupon that unfolded is one of a rebellious, cheeky, and in-your-face company. Whether anyone admitted it or not, Groupon was telling us that it may be worth $30 billion dollars and is now buying Super Bowl ads, but it's still got that Twitter-snarkiness-mojo that you love.

Why is this "quirky" image important to Groupon? How else do you get people to share coupons online with their best friends? (Particularly coming from a company that now is reputed to be worth $30 billion and is advertising on the Super Bowl?)

Greenpeace, not your typical CollegeHumor-style group, observed: "Since Groupon started as a collective action and philanthropy site, they loved the idea of poking fun at themselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause... Greenpeace is happily participating in the campaign. The truth is that the 'Save the Money' campaign and the commercial are really helping us save the whales."

The latter point is another chapter in this story. When you dig down into the campaign, as many did later, you found out that Groupon was raising money for non-profits associated with the causes at the center of the spots. See http://www.groupon.com/pages/save-the-money-faq. And by doing so, while maintaining its sarcastic DNA, the brand found a new line it could walk.

As pioneering union organizer Saul Alinsky used to argue, you can't organize people around a cause that doesn't hit them in the pocketbook. So the cause Groupon is really pitching here is your pocketbook, via its money-saving promotions. Remember, "$30 bucks of Tibetan food for just $15 dollars!"

The subtext is this: You're sick of all the feel-good ads you encounter everywhere these days, right? How about something for you instead of some goddamn indigenous tribe? It's your chance for some left-wing Tea Partying.

In retrospect, the whole story is a pretty great marketing campaign with a complex narrative. Dare I label it -- buzzword alert! -- as transmedia?

Steve Wax is a managing partner at Campfire.

Kenneth Cole
By Adam J. Broitman, Circ.us

Admittedly, I am not easily offended -- by anything. In fact, of the people I know, I was one of the few that appreciated Groupon's infamous Super Bowl ad -- I was more offended that it did not stick to its guns and, instead, threw itself under the bus.

Disruption is a necessity these days: With all of the clutter clogging our media channels, one has to effectively find a way to break through. But breaking through in an unquestionably negative manner, without the proper conversational resources to justify your offense, could be very damaging. When Kenneth Cole took to Twitter, it was obvious that the brand had not yet considered the impact of social media -- after all, how much damage could one little tweet do, right? I find it offensive when marketers like Cole undermine the importance of public media channels and basically presume that the hoi polloi will not understand the political reference.

The bottom line for me is this: If you are going to be disruptive and employ outlandish tactics, be sure to understand your audience and be prepared for all potential complaints. In the case of Groupon, it seems both the agency and client knew what they were getting themselves into and took it right up the line of poor taste -- while many were offended, the marketer was prepared with an explanation and plausible deniability. In the case of Cole, well -- the brand just wasn't paying attention. Never a good strategy.

Adam J. Broitman is a partner and ringleader at Circ.us.

Carrie Reichenthal is an editorial intern at iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Spencer Broome

2011, July 26

Agree with the last paragraph that speaks to the difference between Kenneth Cole and Groupon. Groupon's commercial was satirical because of their philanthropic actions. When you have a history to fall back on, you can make fun of that background in an outlandish way. Kenneth Cole missed that somewhere.