Controversy In Advertising—Is All Publicity Good Publicity?


Is all publicity really good publicity? Is it better to be known for something—even for something not so great—than to not be known at all?


In the wake of the recent Nike uproar, we’ve been pondering this question here at Seller’s Choice ourselves.


Why do some advertising campaigns create such a controversy? How could people become so polarized over an advertisement? And how does this controversy impact the brand in the short-term and long-term?


The Nike backstory

Let’s take a quick look at how Nike’s current advertising controversy started, and what it could mean for their brand moving forward. This sets the stage for how controversial publicity could be positive or negative for your own business.


We see that some people are burning their Nike apparel, while others are flocking to Nike stores to get new shoes. These opposing responses come in the wake of Nike deciding to sponsor Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the anthem throughout the 2017 NFL fall season. His (and others’) kneeling sent America into a juxtaposition of political reactions that had seemed to dwindle by the 2018 start of the season… until Nike’s announce of Kaepernick’s sponsorship.


Whether or not Nike did this to cause a stir is unclear. They could be making a political statement as a way to attract a specific kind of audience, or they could be using it as an opportunity just to spark up further debate.


Either way, the reaction is here. We’re curious to see what this means for Nike’s sales and politics in the future… and what it means for the industry as a whole.




What is controversial advertising?

“Controversial advertising” is the direct, purposeful use of provocation in marketing campaigns with the goal of creating a stir in the audience. A brand will include some sort of talking point or political issue in their advertisements that’s a debated, popular, or taboo subject at the time. The goal with this is to put themselves in the general conversation and “shock” their audiences into remembering them.


The widest form of controversial advertising is “mocking the presidency.” You’ve seen hundreds of Trump and Obama jokes out there, simply as a way to get customers a little fired up. Everyone shares the same president, and everyone has an opinion about the government (no matter how passionate that opinion is).


So, “mocking the presidency” is one of the more universal ways to get under people’s skin a little bit. No matter what political party you belong to, this is a memorable advertising statement that makes you look twice at this small Mexican restaurant as you’re passing by.


The objective of controversial advertising is to get noticed. All marketing should create some sort of emotional response. Controversial advertising tends to create an angry or livid reaction—and those red-hot feelings are directly linked to a strong memory of your brand.


But do you really want “anger” associated with your brand? Is it true that any emotional response is better than no emotional response at all?


Read: 4 Marketing Lessons You Can Learn From Fictional Characters


When does controversial advertising work?

The benefit of controversial advertising is that it gets people talking about your business. The more people talk about you, the greater your brand awareness, which ultimately leads to more sales.


So when can controversial advertising work for your business?


"The benefit of controversial advertising is that  it gets people talking about your business.  The more people talk about you,  the greater your brand awareness,  which ultimately leads to more sales. "  -Click to Tweet-

1. If you have a rebellious audience

Controversial advertising is often referred to as the “mischief-making” of marketing. (We imagine marketers at their desks rubbing their hands together with a sly grin and maniacal laugh.)


Some brands center themselves around controversy. Take the Dollar Shave Club for example. Their brand mission is to provide better quality razors for less. They are going against the grain of traditional razor companies, and they reflect that in their novel brand voice.


When Dollar Shave Club’s first marketing campaign came out, they showed the founder swearing and making inappropriate jokes. They had 3 million views in a week because their voice was so fresh and unique. It helped build their brand quickly because people were constantly sharing this hilarious, unprecedented video.


The Dollar Shave Club wants men and women who don’t want to conform to the typical cosmetics industry, so they use rebellious advertising to attract a rebellious audience.


2. If you’re being clever

Some companies create controversy in a highly methodical, targeted way. They know exactly how their audience will respond because they know their audience inside and out.


Say, for example, you sell pet supplies. You know that 95% of your target audience includes avid dog lovers. You post an advertisement with a picture of Cruella Deville (the 101 Dalmatians dog killer) that says, “We love puppies too.” Your dog-loving audience would be up in arms. They would be ripping down your advertisements and blasting you on social media.


But you knew this is the response they would have because you did it purposefully. So you have a response. Two days later, you release the “rest” of the picture, and it’s actually Cruella Deville chained to the floor or sinking into quicksand. Now, your brand is “killing” Cruella.


Your audience might still be a little mad at you, but they’ll see that you were being clever. You purposefully wanted to shock them, but you still stayed true to your brand mission in the end. It’s risky, but it can work.


Read: Who Is The Spokesperson For Your Brand?


3. If you have a controversial mission statement

If you have a strong or debatable mission statement, don’t be afraid to advertise to it. Your brand’s mission will attract the right kind of consumer that you’re looking for—just like your marketing always should. So, keep your marketing aligned with your brand, even if your mission is a little “hot button.”


For example, you have a company with the goal of stopping the use of fossil fuels. Some people love that, while others don’t believe in global warming. Your mission statement doesn’t appeal to those who want to keep using fossil fuels—and that’s okay. Your marketing will (and should) be controversial as a way to attract the right consumers and deter the ones who won’t purchase from you anyway.


Bottom line: Be controversial when you’re taking a stand in a way that appeals to your audience or aligns with your brand mission.



When does controversial advertising fail?

Although controversial advertising can work, it fails more often than not. It’s risky business that—in most cases—isn’t worth it. Even accidental controversy can provoke such a backlash that it kills your brand in one instance.



Not all attention creates sales. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. Customers can be so provoked and angry with your brand that they decide never to purchase from you again. And once you lose a customer, it’s almost impossible to get them back. Even a sincere apology can’t win back the trust of your consumers.



Frequently, especially with small businesses, one offensive joke can instantly kill your brand. That’s because you don’t have the resources to apologize, re-brand, and re-build. Even some of the largest companies get sucked into the profitless black hole of advertising mishaps.


What do some of these recent advertising whoopsies look like?


You’ll notice two things here. The first is that most of these advertisements were likely accidents. Why? Because brands know that scandalous advertising is not in their best interest. The second is that most of these are big brands or names that haven’t died since releasing their whoopsie. The reason is that it was an accident, they apologized, and they rebranded.


Almost none of the purposeful controversial ads make it to the light of day. For example, a British advertisement by Protein World showed a model in a bikini that read, “Are you beach body ready?” The brand maintained they did nothing wrong because they didn’t insist that everyone should look like that model. But consumers said it was body shaming and started the hashtag #everybodysready. At first, Protein World received 30,000 new customers and an extra 2 million Euro. But when the smoke cleared, they ended up actually losing customers and minimizing their brand credibility in the London area.


Bottom line: Don’t put your business’s reputation and mission on the line for a little exposure.



You want brand awareness and visibility, but not at the expense of your mission or credibility. Not all publicity is good publicity, as the wrong kind of exposure can seriously impact your audience—and without your audience, you have no business.


Rather than provoking or offending, focus on marketing campaigns that stir up an intellectual debate and create a positive emotional response.

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