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What makes an ad the right side of controversial?

Posted 26.04.19

In light of Burger King’s chopsticks ad being pulled instantly, which left many wondering how they could get it so wrong, it’s a great time to ask this question.

From the outside, it can look like a matter of common sense – don’t make an offensive ad. But with the number of brands coming under fire, it seems that’s easier said than done.

Why does this keep happening? Well, the stakes are high. Done right, an ad which takes a stance on a moral issue and intentionally creates controversy can be a great tactic, not just to cut through the noise with fiery debate and increased publicity, but to form a deep connection with an audience that aligns with your values. A strong emotional response will allow a brand to take a place in the hearts and minds of its consumers. Plus, where sales dramatically increase, creating some enemies can be a small price to pay.

So, in a world where Twitter takes no prisoners, let’s look at what steps you can take to get things right.

1. Interrogate your ad

Step one, look at your ad from every angle. Taken in its worst form, what backlash could there be? And is your brand willing/able to withstand that?

Burger King could have easily avoided the chopsticks error, not least because Dolce & Gabbana had made the same mistake before. Stop and think.

This is about safeguarding against a train crash. Burger King’s ‘chopsticks’ ad and Nivea’s ‘White Purity’ ad are good (bad) examples. The recent ‘blackface’ scandals for Prada’s keyring and Gucci’s jumper are of the same ilk. You can spot these mishaps a mile off.

Mario Mo, who picked up the ad in New Zealand, tweeted: “I’m so sick of racism of any kind. Of the kind that makes fun of different cultures. Say no to every single manifestation of it.” Many subsequently joined forces across social media and the post was quickly deleted, with Burger King apologising saying it “did not reflect the brand values regarding diversity and inclusion”.

While others said “what can brands do in the future to introduce Asian elements” and it was a “harmless joke”, I would argue it was simply a lazy cultural reference. Perhaps the lesson is to be aware of the limitations of your own perspective.

Slightly different to Burger King’s effort, but equally careless, was Lush’s undercover spies police campaign. While the aim was to tackle a topical issue, they oversimplified their message and didn’t realise how the campaign could easily be construed as an attack on the police force as a whole – ensue mass unintentional backlash (including protests in stores).

2. Going topical? Let your product take a backseat

On the flip side of the spectrum are intentionally controversial ads that deal with topical issues – the likes of Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ and Nike’s ‘Colin Kaepernick: Believe in something’ campaigns. I personally love these ads, as I think they’re interesting, raise important questions and bring another dimension to advertising.

But, when dealing with serious issues, our ad-savvy don’t-like-to-be-advertised-to audience will see right through you and won’t like it if your message is too entangled with your product. Why? It diminishes the importance of the social issue.

Done well: Gillette’s ‘The best men can be’; Heineken’s ‘World’s Apart’.

Done badly: Pepsi’s ‘Live for Now’ (trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement protests by implying Kendell Jenner could save the day with a can of Pepsi).

3. Taking a moral stance? Live out those values

When it comes to people, it’s been shown that we dislike hypocrites more than outright liars. Hypocrisy really gets people outraged. As Misirlisoy explains, this is because it employs a double layer of deception – engaging in immoral behaviour plus sending false signals of moral superiority.

The same goes for brands. If you are going to get up on a pedestal and tell the world how to behave, to sell your product, you must exemplify these values – from your employee treatment to your product placement.

Interestingly, another less spoken about backlash to Gillette’s ‘The best men can be’ was that their women’s products are up to 34% more expensive than mens, for basically the same product. After tackling gender issues in its advert, inequalities like this no longer fly.

Be honest to your brand and only present those values you truly believe in. Jumping on the bandwagon of a social issue won’t get you anywhere.

4. Know your audience

Marketing is all about knowing your audience. When it comes to controversial issues, this couldn’t be more important. You don’t know how they will react, but you should be able to gauge the issues your audience cares (and don’t care) about most.

Protein World’s ‘Beach Body Ready’ campaign is a prime example. Despite a huge worldwide backlash around ‘body shaming’, especially from feminist groups, they reported a £1m profit. Perhaps, the people who want health supplements are not aware of the issues or don’t feel strongly enough about them to boycott the brand.

Luckily, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) steps in here to protect the interests of the public. Advertisements like that infiltrate the public consciousness and the Beach Body Ready campaign was socially irresponsible, especially where the body image movement is working hard to counteract the negative ideals which have caused harm to so many.

Nike’s 2018 ‘Colin Kaepernick Believe in something’ advert, on the other hand, is a worthy message and a testament to how well Nike knows its audience. The advert featured the American quarterback Kaepernick, who had caused outrage among many Americans for not standing up to sing the national anthem in protest over the treatment of ethnic minorities and social justice issues. His critics, including Trump, claimed he was Anti-American and disrespected the American flag, despite the fact that non-violent civil protest is a core American value.

While social media filled up with a #JustBurnIt boycott, the ad paid off; Nike reportedly made over $6bn in sales and online sales increased by 31%. As reported in Forbes, by aligning the campaign to this social cause, Nike redefined ‘Just Do It’ in terms of moral excellence and success, as well as sport, which allowed them to target a new generation of Gen-Z consumers (who make up a quarter of the US population). More passionate about brand activism than ever, 76% of Gen-Z say that they have purchased (53%) or would consider purchasing (23%) a brand or product to show support for the issues the brand supported.

5. Be prepared for the backlash and take a stance

Criticism amplifies the message. Use this to leverage more about your brand.

A great example of this is the recent Army Recruitment ‘Your Army Needs You’ campaign. It aimed to subvert millennial stereotypes such as ‘snowflakes’, ‘selfie addicts’ & ‘phone zombies’ into a positive reason to join the army, sparking debate over whether it was lighthearted and clever or insulting. Prepared for the backlash, the army used it as an opportunity to talk about their progressive values. As Matthew Waksman explained, “it’s been a Stonewall top employer for ages, it’s got a less than 1% pay gap, it’s been supporting soldiers through transition for a long time”.

It’s about more than just sales and campaign reach. For me, this is also about maintaining some faith in an industry most people love to hate, harnessing the good cultural impact advertising can have (#thisgirlcan) and building brands for the future.

Emily Craxton is a marketing specialist at Wilderness Agency