Controversial Marketing: Exploiting Outrage For Massive Exposure

By azfar on July 20, 2016

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controversial marketing

Kanye did it again. Viral topic pops up one after another – Pokemon Go, Donald Trump, Kanye West, Westboro Baptist Church, you name it. People just can’t stop talking about them.

While a great deal of people got caught in whatever controversy of the month, very few take notice that most of the controversial topics aren’t random coincidences.

They are manufactured.

For the more observant, behind most controversies there are always the real intent behind it. There’s always a party that will benefit from controversy in some way.

This is known as Controversial Marketing.

Controversial marketing is a high risk, high reward strategy. Traditionally it is done using shock advertising, a.k.a shockvertising. Billboards and ads on mainstream media was the standard pre-internet era. Marketers will put up highly controversial subjects on them both to get people looking, and talking.

With internet marketing being the new thing in town, marketers now find themselves having control over a much wider variety of communication medium. Facebook, Reddit, YouTube comment section, you name it. They’re free and can be done anonymously. All while having the same perks of influencing people’s perception.

The rewards can be great: high virality ensures a large-scale spread of coverage in a very short time, with commentators and commenters all looking to weigh in on the issue and share their thoughts (and your marketing in the process).

It generates a huge amount of debate and engagement in the brand, but you have to tread a fine line. One wrong foot can cause serious and lasting damage to the brand. In some cases, it can even put you at risk of legal action.

I’ll be covering on famous controversies of the recent times and dig down what is actually the marketing effort they are really trying to push. We’ll go through the impacts or drawbacks of each and some key takeaways we can learn from them.

Let’s get started shall we?

Tidal Leverage Kanye’s Celebrity Nudes To Hike Their Share Price (Or Did They?)

Tidal is a music streaming and downloading client designed to be for the artists as much as for the listeners. Created with input from Jay Z, Beyonce and a great many other huge names, there was a great deal of hype around the launch, but it seemed to fizzle out in popular media soon thereafter.

Then came the Kanye West “Famous” video.

Inspired by the work of American painter Vincent Desiderio, the video included nude images of a huge range of celebrities, from Taylor Swift to George W. Bush.

The catch? It was exclusively available on Tidal. Kanye, while notorious for being a butt joke of the internet, is well-known to leverage controversies to his own end. As Tidal’s stakeholder, he’s active at promoting the service through both positive and negative publicity.

Did people buy it?

Hell yes!

Two weeks after the video became an online sensation, the subscriber numbers doubled and Apple began holding talks to buy out the service which a year ago, they had allegedly tried to smear.

There were immediate concerns about legal action from Swift, Ray J and others over their representation in the video, but the complexities of image appropriation, art and commercial music are deep and complex, and as yet, no action has been taken.

That doesn’t mean this wasn’t a huge risk for Kanye and Tidal, but in this case, they seem to have gotten away with it.

Overwatch “Buttgate” Successfully Harnesses Online Sensationalism To The Tune Of $269m

Gamergate, as it’s known, is an overarching term for the endemic sexism in the gaming industry.

The controversy has created a militant faction of female-hating gamers, who subject women to such abuse that they daren’t even talk about it for fear of being harassed into oblivion.

Seriously, it’s so bad that we’re at risk even talking about it these terms. Nothing pisses these guys off more than pointing out that their views and actions are sexist and repugnant. Sadly for us, that’s not controversial, just fact.

Blizzard, creator of World of Warcraft, has made 2.9 billion dollars for subscriptions to that game alone. That isn’t enough for them, however, and Overwatch was their bid to combine large scale online play with shoot ‘em up style action.

The controversy came in the form of the female character Tracer, who was even featured on the cover of the game.

Her victory pose was an “over the shoulder” stance that put the aggressively sculpted curves of her butt right in the center of the screen. I find it incredible to believe that Blizzard didn’t know what they were doing here, when a similar pose for Scarlett Johannsson on the poster for The Avengers went viral years earlier, and gave rise to hilarious parodies.

Sure enough, the controversy around the role of women in video games (contrary to Gamergate opinion, the only controversy here is that they are represented in a consistently appalling way), found itself being expressed over the pose.

In an interesting move, Blizzard pledged to change the pose, saying

“We’ll replace the pose. We want *everyone* to feel strong and heroic in our community. The last thing we want to do is make someone feel uncomfortable, under-appreciated or misrepresented.”

Notice developers didn’t claim ignorance, or say that the pose was not deliberately sexualising the character in the first place.

They replaced the pose with an exact replica of a fifties pin-up. And yes, you can still see her butt crack in HD.

Brilliantly, putting the pose in in the first place set them up perfectly to make a statement on the issue, which gave them an opportunity to ‘come out’ as pro-women. Everybody wins?

Did it work?

For the moment at least, sex still sells, and the controversy around the pose generated fevered discussion that kept the game in the limelight.

The sales for the game were phenomenal. In May (just the one month), the game made an incredible $269 million from purchases and in-game microtransactions.

X-Men Apocalypse’s Sexist Poster Unleashes Fury Around Number One Box Office Hit

To market X-Men Apocalypse, a poster was created of Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique being casually choked out by Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse.

In a sign of the times, there was uproar. Celebrities like Rose McGowan expressed disgust at the idea that executives ‘hadn’t noticed’ that the billboard used graphic violence against women as a reason people should see the film. Condemned by institutions like the International Center for Research on Women, together with thousands of Twitter users, the poster was soundly rejected.

Fox had to issue a formal apology for the posted and remove it. By then however, the controversy was in full flow. Like Blizzard and Overwatch, the line was that they simply ‘hadn’t realised’ the implications, and were full of regret over the situation.

Putting something out there to generate controversy and immediately taking it back enabled them to deny it was a deliberate attempt to tap into a hot button issue. At the same time, they co-opted all the pent up energy surrounding that issue for their marketing campaign.

It’s worth mentioning that thousands of people promised to boycott the film, but there were millions of impressions of the marketing campaign as a result.

Did people buy it?

On the 3rd of June Screen Rant reported on the controversy. X-Men Apocalypse sales figures dropped sharply in the second week of release, and on the 5th of June, Screen Rant reported a 75% decrease from the first Friday to the Second.

It’s hard to say how big an impact this controversy had in the sharp decline of the film’s audience, which seemed to track relatively closely to previous installments in terms of percentages, but Apocalypse had a significantly smaller opening take, making it proportionally much less successful.

In this case, we have to call this one a failure. It seems the marketers may genuinely have fallen victim to carelessness. If not, the lack of deliberate intent seemed to create mediocrity in the response. If the Fox team had taken a different tac, would the results have been different?

Donald Trump’s Entire Bid For The Republican Nomination

Foul language. Misogyny. Racism. Personal attacks. Inciting violence against those who disagree with him. He’s done it all.

Donald Trump behaves more like a school bully than a presidential candidate. Which is exactly how he won.

Did people buy it?

Yes. He’s one of the final two presidential nominees left standing for the 2016 elections. What a world.

This is a matter of internal consistency. The fact what he is saying is horrifying is less important to some than the fact he’s consistent and confident.

His brand is arrogant, but by combining his own ego with the fate of America, he creates an image of someone who by aggrandizing himself, will lift up all those on his side in the process. He will “Make America Great Again”, a meaningless but powerful claim.

In his mind, America deserves the best, and the best is Donald Trump. The worst, however, is almost anyone who doesn’t fit his exact demographic.

If you’re different to Trump, you’re worse than him. It comes from a place of toxic narcissism. But his own arrogance is a huge ego boost to anyone white, male, entrepreneurial, or aggressively patriotic.

To them, he represents an unapologetic success. While objectively he isn’t (CITATION), the fact he’s managed to present himself as one, and so become one, is perfect example of what Ayn Rand readers think about the American dream. If you believe hard enough, you create your own reality, and the world has to bend around you.

How did it work?

It kept him in constant media coverage. He knew exactly how to manipulate the 24-hour news cycle and the need for constant drama, by making sure he provided it. He is a classic example of the adage that any publicity is good publicity.

He also targeted existing prejudices and gave them a voice. Racists feel increasingly unable to express their racism, where Trump emboldened them by speaking their language. So-called ‘dog whistle racism’ is now becoming a dark art. Saying something that confirms some people’s anti-whoever beliefs, but can be denied to the victims after the fact, is a worrying trend in politics across the globe.

Then those who aren’t racist are motivated by his constant stoking of American exceptionalism. He targets audiences better than most because he understands that people now filter so aggressively, they only hear what they want to hear.

Racism in America is a big deal right now. As is feminism (we already used two examples in multimedia, which should tell you big a deal it is). By hitting these hot button issues with strong statements, he kept himself relevant at all time.

If you don’t believe me, Forbes put him at number one in their breakdown of controversial marketing.

That’s fine for a person, but what about a brand?

Abercrombie and Fitch Won’t Sell Clothes To Ugly People

Abercrombie and Fitch are known for ensuring really, really ridiculously good looking models wear as few of their clothes as possible in order to successfully advertise… well, those clothes.

They managed to create a huge controversy when their CEO said he didn’t want fat or ugly people buying his clothes.

There was considerable uproar, and a huge backlash against the brand, not least because it seemed kind of hypocritical of the CEO to be calling people ugly.

“good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that” Mike Jeffries (not very good looking).

Did people buy it?

Well. Yeah. But only while it was undercover.

Jeffries said in 2006 his brand was deliberately exclusionary. It was a lifestyle brand for the genetically elite.

I want to talk to you for a second about logical fallacies. These are thought patterns we are capable of falling into without realising that they’re ridiculous. A good example is “All dogs have four legs, therefore all animals with four legs are dogs.” A classic case of Association Fallacy.

Abercrombie and Fitch actively manipulate this fallacy at all times. Their models are some of the hottest people in the world. If they only sold to those people, there would be no business.

So, in this case:

Hot people all wear Abercrombie and Fitch. Therefore, all people who wear Abercrombie and Fitch are hot.

Did it work? Well, in the short term the company took a beating, but only in 2013 when the comments were recirculated.

Sales dropped 11%, and 220 stores were closed.

This signalled a change in attitude, and increase in awareness. Abercrombie and Fitch had associated themselves with an idea that was so associated with a particular period of time, that when that time passed, the brand began to die out.

Retail brands have really struggled with this. Another great example?

United Colors of Benetton Made People Yawn At Shock Factor

True story. When I spoke to a friend about writing this article, United Colors of Benetton was the first brand they mentioned. The very next thing they said, however, was “about 20 years ago.”

To be clear, United Colors of Benetton are still in business. It’s just that nobody cares.

They prove, in a nutshell, why you can’t only be shocking. You have to be relevant. They also demonstrate why you have to pick your timing carefully to be successful. You can’t just splurge bad taste everywhere and expect it to get you customers.

United Colors of Benetton are well known for doing this. The problem is that the more times you go back to the well, the less effective it is each time. This is called ‘diminishing returns’.

Did people buy it?

To begin with. They had a good run. The hammered controversy throughout the 1980s, leaving few topics untouched: HIV, abortion, race, and more. This helped them grow explosively to over 7,000 stores worldwide. It definitely worked.

But it’s important to note that at that time, they were the only ones doing it. The innovated the model so many businesses now replicate when they want to get into the controversy market.

The problem was that in the process, they also made it kind of passe.

In the words of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, “Victory has defeated you.”

Since 2002, fourteen years ago, sales have increased by less than 2%. That could well have happened by accident.

It’s important to learn from this that controversy has to be unexpected. The minute you train your audience to expect shocking things from you, they cease to be anywhere near as shocking.

So. Does any of this stuff have anything to do with SEO or Online Marketing?

Of course it does. Marketing is pitching to human beings. Pitching to them online is no different to offline, as far as the psychology is concerned. But the way you generate controversy has to change slightly.

Ahref Points Out “SEO is Dead” To Harness Cunningham’s Law

Tim Souro boldly proclaimed “ON-PAGE SEO IS DEAD” in Inbound.org, a place where people who swore by SEO people regularly hang.

It’s seemingly not the usual case of empty clickbait either – Tim backed his bold claim with a research involving 2 million searches.

And people went nuts.

Did people buy it?

Long story short, people stormed in only to find that the research actually deals mostly with one aspect of on-page SEO which is exact keyword matching.

The comment section is filled with arguments of all kind.

But the main issue is the use of the inaccurate title, claiming on-page SEO on whole is dead.

The aftermath

Tim finally admits at the end that the title is intentionally made controversial to get clicks. But given the serious backlash Tim decided to give in and change his blog post into a more generic albeit accurate title – On Page SEO in 2016.

Despite the misleading title the post itself is quite a good case study and people are easy to move on.

So Tim manages to tap into the controversy, and by the end of the day fix his reputation as well as racking in THOUSANDS of traffic and social shares.

Controversial marketing at it’s finest.

Neil Patel Creates Apparently Sexist Banner Ad To Sell Online Courses

Being one of the leading name in internet marketing, Neil Patel have his shares of both lovers and haters.

This stems from his marketing tactics that brings in hard results as well as a dash of controversy.

While other marketers play it safe, Neil is no stranger to exploitative tactics that include usage of undeletable cookies, fake website analyzer to rake in opt-ins and condescending opt-out messages.

More than a few times people will voice against some of his underhanded tactics and he even have to deal with a lawsuit once.

Another prevalent tactics of his is the classic “sex sells” method. It’s common to see images of hot babes all around Neil’s contents.

Then he created a banner ad featuring playboy playmate of the year Sara Underwood.

It read “Neil taught me how to make money without taking my clothes off.”

This caught the attention of another prominent marketer – Rand Fishkin. Rand, a known feminist expressed disappointment of this particular practice of Neil in one of his tweets. And as usual, it get people talking.

Did people buy it?

Political correctness aside, I’m pretty sure a marketer of Neil’s caliber knows what ticks people off and it’s (surprise surprise), controversy.

I see his application of his more controversial method twofold:

  1. They are highly effective themselves
  2. They spark controversy that keeps people talking about him

Either way, he wins!

As for damage control, Neil have a legion of followers born out of his continuous successes to back him up. Putting controversies aside, nobody can deny the fact that Neil does what a marketer should do – bring profits in.

And for the rest of us, it’s best to pick up lessons from controversies rather than get caught up emotionally in it.

Key Takeaway

There are highs and lows of controversial marketing and I think you can agree that it’s a highly advanced and risky strategy.

So what can we learn from all these so we can utilize them one bold day?

  1. You can’t only be shocking – Benetton failed to back it up with substance and it let them down in the long run.
  2. You have to be relevant – The Overwatch team knew there was huge energy in the discussion around women in games, and created a problem for that discussion to chew on, as well as a narrative where they played a progressive role in that discussion.
  3. Pick your timing carefully – A&F were shot down by recirculation of comments, or ‘viral waves’. They weren’t in control and it cost them.
  4. Lock onto an existing hot button issue – Celebrity nudes were seen as scandalous and have been making headlines for years thanks to cloud hacks and more. Kanye weaponized them to make money out of that hunger for scandal.
  5. Make a strong statement that plays to one side – Trump created clear boundaries for his target audience and played relentlessly to them.

What Really Matters

Controversy marketing can work wonders, or it can permanently damage a business.

That’s why my recommendation is to be careful and precise in every detail of a potentially controversial campaign. Make sure you tie it into an existing hot button issue. Make sure you make a strong statement that plays to one side, but make sure there’s space to roll back on it later. Make sure YOU decide the way the message gets out and that you put it out there deliberately.

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Updated: 11 December 2017

Azfar Hisham

About Azfar Hisham

A copywriter with previous experience developing computer simulations, managing websites and being the social media guy. Interested in Google Patents, Knowledge Graph and questioning everything.

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