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10 Controversial Marketing Examples and Strategies That Were Shockingly Successful

controversial marketing exampels

Controversy often gives you the limelight you want. Don’t you believe me? Let’s hear a story.

Once, a boy was desperate to meet the king. He asked everyone for a chance. Nobody helped him. He went everywhere the king went. Yet no luck.

He stood in front of the palace for months. Yet no luck.

A wise man pitied him. He gave the boy an idea.

The next day, the king heard that a boy was biting every dog in the street. The boy was summoned. The boy was happy to meet the king. He finally had a chance to talk to the king.

So what did you learn from the story? Creating controversy is not always bad, is it? Rather, controversy is sometimes good for business.

Today, there are too many brands. It is difficult to stand out. Every brand uses many strategies. But only a few choose controversial marketing campaigns. 

Controversial marketing has risks. But again, no risk, no gain, right? So do something that others are not doing. And that is controversial marketing.

By the end of the article, you will learn about:

  • What is controversial marketing?
  • 10 controversial marketing examples that were profitable.
  • Pros and Cons of Controversial marketing.
  • Strategies for controversial marketing.
  • Whether it is ethical or not?

Let’s begin.

What Is Controversial Marketing? 

Controversial marketing is a business strategy that intentionally offends people or violates social norms. It is also referred to as “shock marketing.”

What is

Sometimes companies run offensive advertisements on purpose. It helps to create a buzz. People talk about them. They come to the spotlight.

You need to get noticed to grow your business. Controversial marketing is a shortcut. 

It brings you in front quickly. 

However, do not mix it up with marketing blunders. Marketing blunders are the mistakes a brand unintentionally makes. It just happens.

You run an ad, and some people get offended. And you say sorry. You accept that it was a mistake. and try to do better. That is a blunder.

On the other hand, controversial marketing is intentional. You aim to offend people. Surprisingly, it is a good way to promote your business. Many big brands have done this. You will find them soon in the article.

Controversial Marketing Examples

If you are new to the business, it is good to learn from the experts. Therefore, check out the prior examples of controversial marketing before you make one.

It will help you understand the limits. Because if you do extra, it can be a boomerang. 

Here is a list of 10 good examples. The list includes everything from controversial TV commercials to controversial billboards and posters.

1. “Whopper Neutrality.” by Burger King

Burger King is one of the biggest and most well-known fast-food chains. They only belong to the food industry. So, who could have thought that they would care about net neutrality? But they did.

In 2018, Burger King did some spot pranks with customers. They demanded more money for faster delivery. The customers got annoyed and angry.

Later, Burger King revealed their motto. They raised the question of why people should pay more for faster internet service.

Many people do not know about net neutrality. And many did not care. Now they do. 

Despite their excellent message, many did not like the prank. This raised a controversy. People were arguing about whether it was a good thing to do or not. 

The argument went on for a few days. It was trending on Twitter as well. And the video went viral. It generated more than 3 million views.

Learning: As you can see, you can create controversy while delivering a good message. This will help you get support from fans and the audience. So choose your controversial topic wisely.

2. Gillette’s “The Best Man Can Be”

You must have heard of Gillette. In 2019, the #metoo movement was the talk of the town. It has spread to almost every country. Women were confessing about the harassment they went through.

There was also a lot of controversy regarding the movement. And Gillette wanted to be a part of it.

They aired an advertisement named ” We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”

The ad had nothing to do with shaving. It had no connection with personal care either.

Rather, it stood against the “boys will be boys” thing. It showed men can be better. And the process should start in boyhood.

People were sharing the ad on social media. They were talking about the positivity of the company. 

Learning: You do not have to create controversy all the time. Sometimes, just join in. That will do as well. And it is not necessary to have a relevant controversy. 

3. Airbnb “We Accept”

The Syrian refugee has been a long issue. Some people are open to accepting them. And others are sceptical.

Airbnb made its stand clear. They televised an advertisement known as “We Accept.” 

Airbnb “We Accept

In this video ad, they urged people to help the refugees.

The ad wanted to deliver the message that we are all one. We can live together happily.

The advertisement generated both love and hate. Many were against it. They criticized the company for airing such ads. 

However, 85% of people were positive about the decision. More than 15 thousand people came forward to help the refugees.

Lesson: You need to take some risks. The issue was sensitive. But Airbnb made the right choice by helping the helpless. So, when you choose a side, choose wisely.

4. Girls’ Don’t Poop by Poo-Pourri

Writing an ad script for an odour-eliminating spray is not easy. But Poo-Pourri did an excellent job.

They televised an out-of-the-box ad in 2013. It is named “Girls don’t Poop”. 

Everyone knows there is an odour in poop. It is common. But Poo Pouri made it a big fact. They showed that it was not good for women if their poop stinks. 

The ad went on to say that it could hurt their relationship. 

Many were offended by it. If it was okay for men to stink in the toilet, then why not for women?

Many found the advertisement and the controversy funny. 

The video has generated more than 4 million views on YouTube.

The controversy made the product more popular. More women learned about the product.

Lesson: You need to be creative in controversial marketing. You should think something out of the box to get into the limelight.

5. “Commit to Something”- Equinox

Equinox is a US-based gym and lifestyle brand. They were doing decent business.

Until they made some bold advertisements. 

Equinox released a series of advertisements promoting unacceptable things. One of the ads showed-

A woman breastfeeding while dining in a restaurant

This was too much to take for many. They raised a storm on the internet. Many called for a boycott campaign. 

Also, there were people supporting them. Many stood against the stereotypical ideas of society.

In the meantime, Equinox hit the jackpot. They were getting all the media attention. They became a famous brand overnight. 

Their sales increased by around 80%. That is huge

Lesson: You need to be brave and bold. There is a risk. People can boycott you. But aim at making them believe in what you believe. 

6. “Born The Hard Way.” –  Anheuser-Busch’s

Immigration is a controversial issue in America. Many support this idea. But many think it is harmful to America.

Born The Hard Way." -  Anheuser-Busch's

Anheuser-Busch ran an advertisement supporting the immigrants. It also showed that the founder of Anheuser-Busch had an immigrant background. 

This is a good message. Anyone can support the issue. So, what’s the problem? The problem was the timing of the ad. 

An intense protest was going on against federal immigration at that time. Many people were offended. They were angry at the brand.

The ad went viral. It generated more than 20 million views. Unfortunately,  Anheuser-Busch lost many loyal fans. 

They immediately cancelled the ad. They assured that they had no political agenda. 

The cancellation of the ad made it more popular. 

Lesson: Timing is important. You need to be aware of the current situation before creating controversy. Be flexible for changes.

7.” Believe in Something.” : Nike

Nike always knows whom to feature in their ads. But many thought Nike had made a mistake by featuring Colin Kaepernick. Colin is an NFL player. He is a well-known figure.

The problem was that he had already caused controversy. He inspired a player protest movement.

As soon as the ad was televised, it became the talk of the town. Twitter had exploded. 

But you won’t believe what happened next. Nike got free advertising worth $43 million. Their sales increased by 31%. 

It became one of the most successful campaigns. It was possible because of Gen Z consumers. They believe that their favourite brands should take a position on social issues. 

There was a big risk, but Nike thrived on it.

Lesson: You need to have proper knowledge about your target audience. You should be ready to sacrifice a certain demography for the increment in the other demo. 

8.”Are You Beach Body Ready” – Protein World

Protein World is a fitness and lifestyle brand. In 2015, they spread posters titled “Are you beach body ready?” The poster featured a slim model.

Many women were offended. They found it disrespectful to overweight women. A good number of women came forward to protest. About 70, 000 women signed a petition to ban it. And it was really banned.

However, Protein World did not back off. They continued the campaign on Twitter. They even tweeted, 

“Why make your insecurities our problem?”

“Here is a shoulder for you to cry on” – Protein World

Well, despite all this, they gained publicity and popularity. Many people joined them. Protein World has become one of the most popular fitness brands today.

Lesson: Stick to your campaign. even if it gets riskier. If you back down, it means you were wrong. 

9. Pepsi Now

This one is interesting. Pepsi uploaded a video to their YouTube channel featuring Kendall Jenner. 

The ad showed that Jenner was doing a photoshoot. Then she noticed a protest going on, and she joined too. 

This part was good. But then she handed over Pepsi to the police, and the police became their friends. Finally, in the end, it was revealed that the protest was about “Black Lives Matter.”

This pissed off many people. They found it a mockery of protests. because the protest was not peaceful at all.

People were too angry. And so Pepsi took down the ad. They tweeted that they wanted to support the “Black Lives Movement.” They also apologized for the wrong presentation.

Lesson: Take part in the ongoing hot issues. This will make it easy to create controversy. And always have an apologetic statement ready. This will only help you gain popularity.

10. LikeAGirl- Always

Always is a feminine hygiene brand. In 2018, they ran the “LikeAGirl” campaign.

It featured the stereotypical concepts people have about girls. It raised the question of why “like a girl” is considered an insult.

The ad also portrayed the exaggeration of girls’ behaviour.

In one segment, a girl was asked what she understood by “Run like a girl”. The girl replied that it meant running as fast as she could. This shook the internet. People were reposting the video.

The message was well received. People praised the brand for such a campaign.

Lesson: Controversial marketing does not mean you always have to “create” controversy. Sometimes put an end to one. Give a social message. Your presentation is the key. So, give it some thought. Bring some innovative ideas.

As you can see, the recent controversial marketing campaigns are bringing great profit. thanks to social media platforms. People love to share controversial things. And this helps you get a free promotion.

Pros and Cons of Controversial Marketing

You have seen the examples. Now let’s see the pros and cons of controversial marketing. 

It is like a double-edged sword. It has both merits and demerits. Before applying, you should learn about the advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Controversial Marketing

Controversy as a marketing strategy has many benefits. Many people think controversy only brings disadvantages.

Advantages of Controversial Marketing

That is not true. Let’s check out the pros of controversial marketing.

1. Guarantees Publicity

This is the number one advantage of controversial marketing. People will talk about your brand. The more people talk about you, the more you grow.

People like to oppose each other. While some will sue you, others will support you. This way, the conversation will continue. 

Social media has made it more impactful. People will share it online. Your company’s page or website will get free publicity. 

It becomes easier for you to stand out. Now that people know your brand, they will think about buying your products too. 

2. Raises Emotion

Emotion is important for business. You should focus on connecting with your audience emotionally. 

Plan your controversy properly. so that people get emotional. This will help you gain new customers. 

You have seen in the examples that emotion brings success. You do not have to make your viewers sad. Make them think. This way, the publicity will go on. and an emotional bridge will be built. 

3. Increases Sales

Controversy leads to more sales. Is it hard to believe? But it is true. You have seen this in the examples. 

Increases Sales

Your brand becomes a trend.

People find interest in buying your products. 

So, if you want to grow your business, get ready. 

4. Saves Money

Sounds crazy? But it is a fact. Controversial marketing makes people talk about your brands. People share your campaign. You draw more eyes at little cost.

Controversial marketing always gives you free campaigns worth millions. But the real cost is much lower. Hence, it saves you money.

5. It Elicits Responsive Behaviour in The Public: 

Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

People will buy more of a product if everyone is talking about it. Your sales will increase.

The campaign’s impression will linger in the public’s memory. They will desire to test the product in question. Thus, the sales will go up.

Disadvantages of Controversial Marketing

Controversial marketing has benefits. But as mentioned earlier, it has some demerits too.

Disadvantages of Controversial Marketing

You should keep these in mind:

1. It offends People

This is the prime problem. Often, people get offended. Some people get hurt. Can you do that? Is it ethical?

People can also protest against your campaign. They can ask for a boycott of your products. This is a great risk.

Can you afford it?

Social media has made it worse. Things go viral in a minute. It can harm business. 

2. It Can Damage Brand Reputation

Your loyal customers have high hopes for you. They do not expect you to hurt anyone. 

When you do something controversial, it can defame your brand.

You have seen this in the examples. Pepsi had to take down its ad within 24 hours. This harmed their reputation. They had to apologize. 

3. It Can Divert Attention

Why do you do marketing? for product sales, right?

It Can Divert Attention

Controversy often does the opposite. Your campaign goes viral. People talk about it. But sales do not increase.

Why?

because they did not focus on the product. Everyone focused only on the controversy. This is a big risk. This way, you lose money for nothing. 

4. It May Become A Source of Debate

Many brands use arguable campaigns in which they-

  • propose an idea, 
  • provide both the benefits and drawbacks 
  • and then leave it up to the audience to make a decision.

This may occasionally confuse the audience, putting them in a quandary of opinion.

This causes public controversy. And people tend to forget about the brand in favour of the issue or idea it promotes.

Controversial Marketing Strategies

So, have you made up your mind?

Do you want to start a controversy?

Then have some patience. Do not rush. Have a look at the strategies the brands used.

1. Try Something Different

Ideas that push the limit often receive strong interaction. They get more shares, comments, and gossip. Copycat campaigns and safe ideas do not work. 

First, what do you want to do? You can:

• Amaze your audience by responding to a standard issue in an unexpected way.

• Dispute or question an accepted paradigm.

• Gather personal viewpoints, experiences, and tales to uncover the truth.

• Use evidence and documentation. Challenge traditional habits of thought, stereotypical beliefs, and unconscious biases.

• Use persuasive, creative, content, and documentation to reframe a contentious topic.

 2. Get People Talking

You should use the controversy to deliver a message. You express your position in a public debate. But do not fake it. Only take part if you truly believe that.

Consider what is appropriate for your audience.

Avoid sensitive themes such as religion, war, politics, or sexuality.

They elicit strong emotions such as wrath, hatred, or frustration. These subjects limit rather than expand the debate. You want moderate controversy that gets people talking, not one that causes them to shut you down.

3. Connect Back to The Brand at All Times

Find your “controversy comfort zone.”  Stress the ideals that are consistent with your brand. Incorporate controversy into your team’s marketing initiatives. 

Connect Back to The Brand at All Times

How resonant a marketing campaign is will depend on the- 

  • what’s real to your business, 
  • The significance of the issue to your staff, 
  • and relevance to your audience. 

Keep in mind that authenticity is rarely forced. Do not strive to inject more controversy into your marketing initiatives. 

  • Check to see whether you’ve audited any previous digital footprints. 
  • Remain factual.
  • Make use of a trustworthy data source; 
  • Cite each source with a link.
  • Permit access to raw data; if it is used as a source, 
  • Check for errors three or four times.
  • Have a backup plan that is a backup of your backup plan. No matter how contentious the marketing is, it should always include a safety net.

4. Take Control of The Conversation

You made a bold statement. And you’ve captured the attention of thousands of people. What happens next? Roll down your sleeves and grow your business. 

  • Communicate your position.
  • Describe how your product or solution relates to the dialogue you initiated.
  • Have proof in the form of data points, case studies, testimonials, and research at the ready.
  • Check that the nurturing funnel makes sense in the context of the dialogue.

Is It Ethical?

Now, this is a real problem. Many have raised the question. You are manipulating people emotionally. You intentionally hurt others. You do it for money. Is it alright?

Controversy often leads to violence. You may not intend to do so, but it happens. Fans get overexcited, and thus this happens.

You have people who support you. And there are people who are protesting. These two groups attack each other verbally. Sometimes they even get into physical violence. This can cause trouble for you. 

Again, you only mean to grow your business. It is not your responsibility if people get the message wrong. 

You can argue as long as you want. Still, you cannot reach a solution. Before we can come to a universal answer, enjoy your life. Grow your business.

Conclusion

Controversial marketing helps your business. There is no doubt. You have seen controversial marketing examples. 

But you should keep it under control. Exaggeration does not bring positive results. 

You need to be bold and creative. At the same time, be reasonable. Controversial marketing can make you a top brand overnight. It can also hurt your popularity. Therefore, plan a proper strategy. Controversial advertisements are like double-edged swords. Therefore, you must imply it wisely.

You should be clear about your aim. This will help you create a good controversy.

You can gain more customers. Your business will grow. Go through the examples again for that.

References

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