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Can controversial ad campaigns ever be a good idea?


Spanish fashion brand Balenciaga must have known it was courting controversy when it used pictures of teddy bears in fishnets and leather straps but perhaps wasn't expecting the ferocity of the subsequent backlash. Is controversial advertising ever a good idea?

As a rule of thumb, most advertisers steer well clear of anything that is remotely controversial. If your purpose in life is to raise brand awareness and/or shift a lot of product, the last thing you want is a tsunami of public outrage played out across the press and social media. Focus on the message, avoiding anything that might result in unnecessary distraction, is usually the order of the day. The keyword here is "usually." The advertising industry has a long history of coming up with campaigns that cause jaws to drop, either because of their audacity or their willingness to push the boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable. Youth-oriented brands or those with an edgy profile are the most likely to embrace controversy, but it doesn't always have a good outcome.

Spanish fashion brand, Balenciaga's 2022 Gift Collection campaign was a case in point. It featured a series of photographs depicting children carrying teddy bears. The problem being that the bears were festooned with garments that included leather straps and fishnets. To add to the company's problem, a few days later its Garde Robe campaign used a photograph that contained a documents relating to a US Supreme Court ruling on child pornography. The backlash was rapid and intense. Balenciaga - no stranger to controversy in the past - withdrew the campaigns. But that doesn't mean that controversy is a bad thing. When it works it can help a brand win some free publicity, but unless the tone of the creative is absolutely spot on, there is a high chance of failure.

Certainly, that's the view of Robert Bownes, Director of PR and marketing consultancy, Old Street communications. "The old adage that all publicity is good publicity is, in most cases, nonsense," he says. "Being edgy or controversial in advertising is a high-risk/reward strategy. Get it right and a company can get millions of pounds worth of free advertising. Get is wrong and at best, the ad will be dismissed for trying too hard. At worst, the brand's reputation may be destroyed." Philip Bacon of Bacon Marketing agrees. "Campaigns taken out of context can cause irreparable harm," he says, not least in terms of lost sales. "In a world where there is so much choice, people are given the opportunity to move away from brands that misbehave and don't align with the morals of the general public."

Going Polar
The problem is that deliberately controversial campaigns - those which are designed to generate a heated debate - rely on polarisation. "Essentially an ad will need to provoke a small but significant portion of the audience to complain, while at the same time entertaining another segment enough so they will defend it," says Robert Bownes. "The ensuing debate between these two groups is what generates the publicity for the ad." It's a delicate formula. Go a little bit too far and you not only provoke your natural detractors, but you also lose your target audience. Or to put it another way, those you expected to entertain.

Controversy, of course, can take different forms. A brand can take a moral stand on an issue that is socially or politically divisive.For instance, trainer brand Nike's Just Do It campaign included Colin Kaepernick, a National Football League player who famously "took the knee" in a protest against racial injustice. Taking the knee was - and to some extent still is - a polarising issue in the US and beyond, so Nike risked alienating a part of its audience. But there was perhaps more to be gained from positioning itself as a champion of racial justice. And arguably that meant the campaign while sparking debatewasn't really all that controversial. It showed a company in tune with a large section of its audience while also being willing to take a certain amount of incoming fire from those taking a different position.

Beatriz Repiso, owner of international agency Otternative Marketing cites Nike's Just Do It campaign and grooming brand, Old Spice's The Man Your Man Could Smell Like as examples of campaigns that generate debate while also demonstrating creative flair. In the latter case, Old Spice was challenging traditional gender roles. "The Nike campaign generated significant media attention and helped to boost the company's sales and stock prices. The Old Spice Campaign was widely praised for its creativity and effectiveness," she says. "In both cases the controversial nature of the campaign helped grab people's attention and drive engagement with the brands."

That's if you get the tone right. Brands can easily come unstuck when they reference social issues as a means to reach out to the attitudes of a target audience but somehow misjudge the mood. One of the most famous examples was a Pepsi ad featuringmodel, Kendall Jenner.The story was this. Racially diverse protestors - the cause was never specified - marching through an urban landscape were saved from police brutality by Jenner, who was armed with nothing more than a can of Pepsi. Arguably the ad - generally considered to be tone deaf -probably didn't ultimately harm Pepsi, but nor did it do the company any good. So what are the lessons here? Well, according to James Owen, co-founder of Click Intelligence, it's important for brands to understand that while controversy can pay off, it can also leavethem dealing with a media backlash and having to defend their decisions. He says they have to be ready for that. "If you aren't willing to be as loved as you are hated or be willing to put the effort in to somewhat mitigate the negative attention, it may not be worth it."

And what if the backlash is really bad - such as the negative reaction encountered by Balenciaga. Beatriz Repiso says contrition is part of the mix. "In the event of a backlash, it's important for the brands to address the concerns of those who are upset and find a resolution that satisfies both parties. This may involve apologising, clarifying the brand's position or taking other steps to address the issue. Responding quickly and transparently and avoiding being defensive can minimise damage to the brand's reputation and prevent the situation from escalating." For its part, Balenciaga has, indeed, apologised for the recent ads. You could argue of course, that more people now know about the brand than was previously the case and that's what controversy can do for you. It's a question of not going too far.

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