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How 5 brands took huge risks on controversial content

How 5 brands took huge risks on controversial content Deborah Bates

We've arrived at a point in time wherein brands throughout the world recognize that they need to be producing original content -- and lots of it. After all, the publication of compelling content is one of the top 3 reasons why consumers follow brands on Twitter, and a whopping 90 percent of consumers say they find custom content useful. While this is great and all, as with anything that takes off throughout the world, brands publishing content has become commonplace. It is no longer a unique selling point. It is the quality of the content itself that is the USP.

How 5 brands took huge risks on controversial content

Some forward-thinking brands have recognized this and, in a bid to stand out, are taking risks by publishing controversial content. In some cases, this has paid off; in others, not so much. While there's no perfect strategy for the use of such content, it's definitely worthwhile looking at where others have succeeded and failed.

Yes, sex can sell -- but it's down to luck

It may be a cliché, but yes, sex (or in this case, adult-orientated content) does have the potential to sell -- but in my opinion, it's all down to luck. Let's look at a few examples:

Wonderbra's "Hello Boys"

Although it was almost 20 years ago when Eva Herzigova appeared on billboards around the U.K. in nothing but her underwear, the impact of this now iconic piece of visual content remains fierce. Labeled "the poster image of the 90s" by the campaign's editor, Stefano Hatfield, the photograph's eye-catching nature allegedly caused car accidents throughout the U.K.

How 5 brands took huge risks on controversial content

Such was the campaign's popularity that Wonderbra sales subsequently skyrocketed by 41 percent. Manufacturer Playtex confirmed that in the months following, it sold 25,000 bras per week. What's more, the campaign has taken many accolades -- including "Campaign of the Year" during the year of its inception, 1994, and more recently, the title "Most iconic advertising image of all time" (awarded by the Outdoor Media Centre). 

Herzigova's legacy lives on still, in the form of the more modern, but similar Wonderbra adverts we see today and the 2012 Decoder app launched by the brand. It allowed users to see what seemed like a fully-clothed model in just her underwear, by scanning special posters with their smartphone. (Talk about controversial content!)

Would I label the "Hello Boys" campaign a success? Hell yeah -- and a big one at that. It increased the brand's sales, overall awareness, and is still making an impact 19 years on. Would a simple picture of a bra have achieved that? I doubt it.

Snickers' "You're not you when you're hungry"

Playing on the fact that most of us get a bit grumpy, disorientated, or confused when we're hungry, this image -- taken from Snickers' latest campaign -- really hits the nail on the head. It is a great visual representation of that feeling, but is admittedly a bit saucy. In fact, it's probably the most controversial part of the whole campaign (that's unless you can call Joan Collins in a male locker room risqué).

How 5 brands took huge risks on controversial content

No matter what your feelings toward this lady, who appears in a partial state of undress and presumably heading for the bedroom, the whole campaign has netted Snickers significant sales growth. In the impulse sales channel alone (i.e. purchases that aren't pre-planned), year-on-year sales are up by 750,000. Sales in other channels have experienced double-digit growth too, according to MediaCom, the agency behind the campaign. Quite simply, it worked.

Yves Saint Laurent's "Opium"

In the year 2000, in a bid to re-energize its flagging reputation in the fashion world, Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) took a risk. It created a piece of imagery that has become iconic for all the wrong reasons, labeled the eighth most-complained-about advert of the past 50 years by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA).

The infamous poster shows an almost-naked Sophie Dahl posing on a couch, her flame-red hair offsetting her pale skin. Some 948 people took offense to the content, causing the ASA to deem it "likely to cause serious or widespread offence." YSL was banned from using the visual content on billboards, but was allowed to publish it in appropriate magazines. Some might argue that when viewed in context, it was no more offensive than Eva Herzigova's Wonderbra advert (which, in 1994, was considered racy). By the "Noughties," people were becoming more liberated and open; perhaps making Dahl's piece very "of its time."

So, was it a winner? Well, granted people are still talking about it 13 years on, YSL has never really lived it down. However, the situation begs the question: Does the fact it was voted one of the most offensive ads of all-time outweigh any potential increases in sales the fashion house gained at the time? It's difficult to say, but what this example does show is that when it comes to using adult content to your advantage, success does partly come down to luck.

When newsjacking doesn't work

In the past 18 months or so, one new medium has driven the increased publication of controversial content -- newsjacking. The act of using breaking news events to a brand's advantage, by publishing content (be it a blog, tweet, or video) that demonstrates their take on it, newsjacking has become very popular with international brands. Sometimes it works really well, gaining brands lots of additional web traffic and increased awareness. It can also backfire if done in an insensitive way, though...

The CelebBoutique and Aurora incident

Not long after the tragic Aurora shooting took place in Colorado, in July 2012, CelebBoutique (which sells celebrity-inspired clothing) published the following tweet on its Twitter feed:

How 5 brands took huge risks on controversial content

What looked like an attempt to capitalize on an American tragedy in a bid to make a few sales was later labeled a "misunderstanding" by the brand. It followed up the tweet with others that read: "We apologize for our misunderstanding about Aurora. -- CB" and "We are incredibly sorry for our tweet about Aurora" -- amongst others. Unfortunately the apologies proved too little, too late for CelebBoutique, whose content had by then been picked up by news outlets around the world. The Huffington Post even set up a poll asking readers what they thought of the error.

Even now, eight months on, a Google search for "CelebBoutique" brings up results with names like "CelebBoutique blows its chances of selling things every again" and "Insensitive and stupid: CelebBoutique makes light of Aurora." This is a great indicator of the long-term impact posting controversial content can have -- whether it has paid off or not. It's definitely something to consider before hitting the "publish" button.

Neel Patel's "Hurricane Hair"

When Hurricane Sandy struck America last October, many companies tried to capitalize on its destruction by sending out special email deals (yes, I'm talking to you American Apparel) or how-to guides on keeping your nails tidy during the storm -- so Neel Patel wasn't alone when he launched his "Hurricane Hair" Pinterest board.

How 5 brands took huge risks on controversial content

Although nothing has been confirmed by Patel (a self-labeled "eclectic & eccentric entrepreneur"), he presumably launched the board in a bid to promote his own website. Although it didn't reach the heady heights of others' attempts to do the same, his Pinterest board was picked up by external media and touted as being in bad taste by some -- for potentially making light of what was a very serious and, in some cases, life-threatening situation. Although he didn't appear to be such a big deal prior to the Pinterest incident, whatever reputation he did have is likely to have been tarnished as a result.

The pros and cons outlined

As you can see, publishing risqué content is most definitely a risk. It has pros and cons. When it works, it really works; potentially boosting sales. When it doesn't, it can have a negative impact on a brand's reputation. Let's look at the pros and cons in detail:

How 5 brands took huge risks on controversial content

  • Pros: Can escalate brand awareness, increase audience reach, improve sales/profit, encourage positive social reaction towards the brand, and have a long-term impact on the brand's nationwide or worldwide reputation.

  • Cons: Can result in lost sales/profit, encourage negative social reaction towards the brand, and damage the brand's nationwide or worldwide reputation -- which could take months, if not years to recover.

You'll see that the pros and cons are very similar -- that's because it really can go either one way or the other. However, that doesn't mean your brand should avoid publishing controversial content altogether. It just comes down to going about it in a sensitive, well-thought-through manner.

How can we utilize controversial content?

Firstly, think very carefully about what you want to achieve from your controversial content. Maybe you want to drive traffic toward your website, using targeted keywords. Or you might want to encourage conversation around your brand on social media. This is a key benefit of opting for risqué content. After all, in their paper titled "When, why and how controversy causes conversation," writers Jonah A. Berger and Zoey Chen say, "Controversial topics are more interesting to talk about, which -- in turn -- increases the chance they will be discussed."

If it's increased social media presence you're after, then you'll have to be ultra-sensitive with your controversial content. For example, if another Hurricane Sandy hit, you could produce some content that helped those going through it -- perhaps a how-to guide to surviving the storm. That would get people talking about your brand for all the right reasons. The operative point here is that under no circumstances should you appear to make light of a bad situation.

What's more, as Chen and Berger say, "self-enhancement goals influence what people talk about," use your controversial content to make your target audience feel like they've learned something and could pass some real knowledge on to their peers by sharing your content. That way, they are more likely to react positively to it.

A/B testing should be your friend here. If you're a bit scared about publishing anything really controversial, start off with something small -- like a newsjack of a recent event. Don't publicize it too much, but do push it out to your social networks. Measure the reaction and base your future decisions on that; perhaps taking it further next time.

All in all, a bit of common sense will go far. Look over any content before it is published. If you and other members of your team wouldn't react positively to a brand that published it, don't do it. If you feel it would endear you to a brand, go for it. Good luck!

Deborah Bates is a campaign delivery manager at Red Rocket Media.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Cropped closeup of a woman wearing red lipstick" image via Shutterstock.

I’m a content marketing specialist, creating and managing multi-channel content strategies for clients across a range of industries. In a work capacity, I’m especially passionate about Twitter and content of all forms... Outside of work,...

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