What’s better – being controversial or being authentic?

Being provocative is nothing new in advertising and marketing. Since the year dot, ads have used sex to sell products, for example, even tire valve caps. The recent attempt at using controversial ‘humour’ by Hakanoa Ginger Beer in New Zealand proved particularly disastrous as they link their product with red haired children. Unsurprisingly, they’ve apologised and “limited” the campaign distribution. (For “limited” see “pulled”)

Aside from the fact that some PRs and marketers in the UK appear to think such offensive guff is hilarious (professional integrity prevents me from naming and shaming), what struck me most was the company’s attempt to defend the campaign as a way of ‘raising awareness’ of the bullying of children with red hair.

Whether delivering product marketing or societal behaviour change programmes, we have to take full account of the benefits or otherwise court controversy. Let’s face it, public health campaigns have often in the past needed to use shock tactics – think ‘Don’t die of ignorance’and pretty much anything to do with smoking.

So, why do many campaigns aim to court controversy? In product advertising there is an obvious desire to simply generate publicity and there is an inherent ‘cool’ factor in appearing radical, edgy and humorous. Hakanoa cite tens of thousands of comments posted to local media sites covering the story and it has generated publicity for the brand worldwide.

For many organisations, controversy defines the product or the issue at hand. When you are campaigning against the use of fur in clothing or meat in food, because of the arguably cruel nature of it as a product or ingredient, the thinking is to expose and emphasise the cruelty.

Controversy often plays out well when testing communications ideas. Recent co-creation workshops we ran with young people suggested we use yet more ‘shock tactics’ about the dangers to their health in order to warn them off taking up smoking – even though in surveys the awareness of health issues was near universally accepted.

It can almost become the brand message itself. We’ve already seen how smoking campaigns are almost synonymous with shock tactics that grow more and more brutal as viewers get desensitised to the message. United Colors of Bennetton are a case study in themselves.

So, what’s the problem? Well, publicity isn’t always king in this game. Hits don’t necessarily change product preference, personal behaviour or attitudes. After tens of thousands of comments on news pages, Hakanoa have just 900 or so ‘likes’ on their Facebook page – one of the best ways of engaging with their customers – and a continuous need to apologise there. It is these conversations that drive behaviour.

Often the problem is that our industry has a tendency to focus on the ‘big idea’ dreamed up in a brainstorm. Product managers are particularly prone to this level of thinking, driven by tools and analysis about competitor innovation in their marketplace, desperate to catch social media memes and the ‘next big thing’. The classic beauty parade of the three-way creative pitch drives this thinking.

Controversy will polarise the audience and addressing the impact of this can be tricky. Some brands like Marmite and Pot Noodle pull it off admirably, but they have products which polarise: you love it or you hate it. Are people switched off by Benetton, who posted a 28% fall in profits in 2011? The recent campaign by Harvey Nichols is predicted to have similar negative impact.

The solution? In my opinion, it is about avoiding ‘big idea’ marketing – that new creative space is as likely to be an engagement cul-de-sac. Focus on your own people, your customers and the authenticity of your dialogue with them all. Be honest, do you really expect customers to believe you are ‘raising awareness’ about an issue, rather than simply flogging your product off the back of a cheap joke?


Richard Forshaw, ICE Creates Ltd (0845 5193 423 / richard.forshaw@icecreates.com)

One Trackback

  1. By More lessons for brands on their journeys to authenticity « ICE on Wednesday 20th March 2013 at 2:31 PM

    […] blogged about authenticity before. Ultimately, these supply chain scandals expose flawed values. From the largest global […]

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