Controversial Ads - Why are They So Successful?

Controversial Ads - Why are They So Successful?

Gillette Reignites Controversy

Gillette struck a chord with its ‘We Believe’ campaign, inspired by and supporting the #MeToo movement. The ad divided the world’s male population sparking hatred for the ad’s view of men as well as great support for the man-centric brand’s movement towards change. The film We Believe: the Best Men Can Be, went viral within 48 hours gathering more than 4 million views on YouTube.

Despite a large number of negative comments, Gillette was quickly mentioned by prominent persons including Piers Morgan, Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King) and many others. It spread like wildfire on social platforms, especially Twitter and became the main topic of conversation across the globe. If this isn’t free publicity then what is?

Gillette's Film We Believe: the Best Men Can Be

The Viral Factor

Controversy’s defined as prolonged public disagreement or heated discussion. This automatically dictates that some people are against the concept while some people are for it. A controversial ad takes on a wide debate, the more takers the more sharing! That’s why a controversial ad is more likely to go viral.

Achieving planned controversy takes fantastic planning and a very specific understanding of a brand’s audience or at least desired audience but when done right it can skyrocket the brand into success and ensure everyone remembers the name.

What is it about controversy that’s eaten up so fast by society? It is in our human nature to enjoy opposed opinions and fight for what we believe is right? All strong emotions evoke a louder stance from audiences. These ads lay out a sensitive subject to the masses, let emotions flare and the idea goes viral all thanks to people’s emotions of anger; anger towards the ad and anger towards hatred of the ad. Ultimately the ad achieves exposure and a lot of free media coverage.

In short, a controversial ad is more likely to go viral!

Accidental Vs Planned Controversy

Most of the time brands walk on eggshells trying to be politically correct and do their very best to avoid controversy. As a marketeer it’s important to understand the difference between accidental and planned controversy. When a brand representative insults the public or states a controversial opinion or when a brand puts out an ad that is taken the wrong way by the public, it can easily backfire on the person themselves as well as the entire brand. A good example is Woolworth’s 2019 Valentine Day campaign which stereotyped men and women in an attempt to be humorous. It received widespread social media outrage and was quickly pulled out.

The male and female versions of Woolworths' 2019 Valentine's Day campaign

Planned controversy is positioned to pull the right emotions out of the targeted audience which balances out and ultimately eliminates the negativity connected to the campaign. It also helps brands segregate their audience and either focus on building new ones or remarketing to existing ones with more precision.

What Does a Planned Controversial Ad Look Like?

Italian fashion brand, the United Colours of Benetton has a long-standing history with controversial ads. Their campaigns encourage accepting differences in people and spreading equal love. By now, audiences wouldn’t recognize a campaign as ‘Benetton’ unless it carried the brand’s signature flair for controversy.

In 2011, the brand pushed even further with its ‘Unhate’ campaign, depicting rivaling world leaders kissing each other. It especially hit the nail with the image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing an Egyptian Imam. The message was simple; Christians and Muslims should kiss and makeup, the Vatican was not impressed, and Benetton had to pull out that specific ad from their campaign. At first glance it might seem like a grave mistake, but was it really?

This sparked a worldwide coverage of the campaign, especially after the Vatican got involved and spoke out publicly about the brand. The campaign achieved its goal; it gained exposure, sparked conversations, got public figures involved and sustained Benetton’s image as a controversial and bold brand. Guess what? The ad they had to pull out of the campaign is still viewed online to this day, and we’ve even got it right here.

Moral of the story: a strong message never dies.

Benetton's Unhate Campaign Depicting Pope Benedict XVI kissing an Egyptian Imam

Is a Controversial Campaign in Your Brand’s Future?

You’d have to study your audience, set your goals and carefully plan the campaign. Remember, accidental (or failed) controversial campaigns can severely damage a brand. However, the first rule in marketing is disrupt or disappear - cliché but true. If you want to raise your voice and remind the world who you are with an out-of-the-box idea speak with the 120ADVERTISING team and we’ll help you plan a fantastically successful controversial campaign.


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