360 Degree Media Group Blog

Controversial Marketing: The Key To Success Or Failure?

Posted by Amy Baker on Apr 11, 2014 6:00:00 AM

Advertisements are meant to be memorable.

They are meant to evoke a feeling or touch a nerve. Some perfectly reflect a cultural zeitgeist, like Dos Equis, Apple’s “1984” commercial, while others remain in their audience’s consciousness for all the wrong reasons. Some companies intentionally use shock value in their advertising while others just create strange advertising then get caught by surprise when the public is offended at their obvious bad taste.

The French are arguably the best when it comes to controversial marketing. For example, the French agency BDDP & Fils created an advertisement for the non-smokers rights association. Nothing sells like sex and this ad had images of oral sex with the sentiment being, “if you let your children smoke, its child abuse”. The imagery of the ad was the shock factor here, and the ad received complaints; lots of them. It is still being talked about today though! 

Air New Zealand also used this type of marketing recently in one of their ads. The airline’s real employees were shown walking around the airport “dressed” in body paint. The ad, “Nothing to hide” has won the Grand prix award this year.

Air New Zealand: Controversial Marketing

Advertising is a part of everyday life

Step outside and you are guaranteed to see a number of advertisements. For the most part, their purpose is to influence purchasing decisions. The ad will show the product or service being offered as well as point out some benefits to the consumer. Its success will be measured by any increase in sales.

Along with these traditional ads, some companies strive to be more “original” or inventive than their competition. A series of ads run by United colours of Benetton raised brand awareness and increased its revenue by more than 100%. The ads were based on taboos and featured such scenes as a white child being breast fed by a black woman, and a nun and priest kissing, as well as identical hearts labelled white black and yellow.  None of Benetton’s advertising featured pictures of the products they were selling. Rather than sweaters, the ads showed environmental disasters, AIDS, war and even racism.

The debates and discussions these ads caused, with the obvious message behind them being “the united” colours, became a metaphor for people’s skin tones.  Benetton was condemned for using serious global issues to sell products, but at the same time praised for raising awareness on social issues affecting us all. The campaign was a success, even though it did cause some furore. Their advertisements have been banned in a number of countries. 


Weird marketing methods used in the world of advertising

When it comes to public service campaigns, shock is almost a requirement and shows that controversial marketing methods can work. The best and most well known example of this is the requirement that cigarette companies display images of the dangers of smoking on the packets. When brands do something completely different from the norm, it can be shocking, but does shocking the public really equate to doing good?

The dangers of drunk driving are usually depicted through horrific car accidents. Is it possible for these ads to work, without damaging a company’s reputation? Or is the real risk not being seen?


Marketing failures

The most shocking of these, an ad by Gelato Italiano ice-cream was recently banned in the UK. It was a bus side ad that showed a priest and nun about to kiss with the words “there probably is no God, so stop worrying”.

A stupid shock ad was created by P&G for its Tampax brand that showed a boy who turns into a girl then gets his period. You have to watch it to see how it ends.

The funniest shock ad ever created was done by Burger King for the seven incher sandwich that will “blow your mind away”. The girl in the ad got more attention than the sandwich ever did.

These ads did get people to pay attention, but they also managed to undermine the company’s reputations in the eyes of their audience.

What may be creative and imaginative to some, may be viewed as offensive to others. Ultimately, your audience and the type of message you are trying to send should determine whether or not controversial marketing methods will work for your brand.


The 360 Degree Marketing Group offer a range of marketing services. Whether you want to create a controversial or timid campaign; we can make sure it is effective. 

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