4 deliberately controversial ad campaigns

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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.



Spencer Broome
Spencer Broome July 26, 2011 at 9:52 AM

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.