The Dos and Don’ts of Controversial Marketing

The Dos and Don’ts of Controversial Marketing

In less than 24 hours, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology. The big difference between the ads is how they incorporated a controversial topic. Heineken asked regular people to have a discussion over a drink. Marketers can learn a lot from both approaches. Why controversy works The most effective content gets people talking, which is the innate appeal in something controversial. Their results indicated that low-level controversy encourages engagement, but anything beyond that decreases the likelihood of high engagement. Travelmath set out to answer a key question for consumers planing their next vacation: Which hotel rooms are the dirtiest? The campaign had the potential to create controversy, particularly from mad hotel owners, but Travelmath understood that customer’s interest in travel transparency would outweigh any backlash. Pull the curtain back on something taboo This kind of content focuses on a topic that isn’t often discussed publicly. Although you can’t guarantee how audiences will respond to controversy, brands interested in pursuing polarizing content should use the past as a blueprint for what works and what leads to bad publicity.

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In one of the most talked-about ads in recent memory, reality star Kendall Jenner walks off a photoshoot to join a crowded protest. The demonstration eventually comes to a halt in front of a line of policemen, so Jenner walks up to an officer and tries to make peace with … a can of Pepsi.

People like to say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But even though the clip had more than 1.6 million views on YouTube after only a few hours, it generated five times as many downvotes as upvotes. In less than 24 hours, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology.

Less than a month later, Heineken explored somewhat similar territory in an ad—but to rave reviews. In “Worlds Apart,” pairs of strangers were asked to complete an activity together before they found out they had opposing political views. Each pair was then offered the opportunity to sit down and engage in a discussion over a beer or leave. All of them chose to stay and discuss their differences.

The big difference between the ads is how they incorporated a controversial topic. Honesty and self-awareness are two crucial but undervalued aspects of storytelling. Heineken asked regular people to have a discussion over a drink. Pepsi, meanwhile, focused more on the drink itself and used a celebrity spokesperson who doesn’t have any connection to politics. Marketers can learn a lot from both approaches.

Why controversy works

The most effective content gets people talking, which is the innate appeal in something controversial. It’s guaranteed to trigger an emotional response from the audience. People tend to click, read, and share because they have an opinion and want the rest of the world to know about it.

In a 2014 study, researchers Jonah Berger and Zoey Chen analyzed more than 200 articles to see how controversy impacted engagement levels. Their results indicated that low-level controversy encourages engagement, but anything beyond that decreases the likelihood of high engagement.

So how can brands produce something that hits the sweet spot?

The answer to…

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