Controversy is Everywhere! Should it Be In Your Ads?


If you're a savvy marketer, you've noticed a trend. You've realized that everything seems controversial today. It's like nobody says anything gently or tactfully anymore. And everything relates to a broader debate, a hot button. This isn't something that came out of nowhere. It seems the social media age brought it upon us. Although 35% of Facebook users are "very unwilling" to use the network for political debate1, it's obvious that social media has become a popular place to share beliefs, opinions and even direct insults. What does this mean for businesses?

Although it's risky, controversial advertising helps the advertiser get noticed3, and getting noticed can take you places you wouldn't expect to go. As Forbes explains, a marketer at Bikini Luxe received 50,000 views and became a contributor to Inc. Magazine just for posting a woman in a bikini on LinkedIn and asking "Is this appropriate here?" A debate ensued and Bikini Luxe profited.

That's not the only example we have. There are many. Everyone wants in on the controversy. Remember Budweiser's "Born the Hard Way" ad? It portrays the founder of the company as an immigrant, which he was, and more or less shows support for immigrants in a general sense. Well, not everyone was happy with it. It aired when the US president was pushing a controversial immigration policy that prohibited people from certain countries to enter the US. Some Americans thought the ad was too political to air at that time. Instantly, Budweiser became part of a broader political discussion. Some viewers even called for a boycott of the beer company. 

Sharing Your Opinion the Right Way

We don't know how Budweiser's bottom line was affected by their immigration message but we do have some idea of how to take part in controversial advertising as businesses and brands. According to Data Freaks, you should try not to portray a position with which your loyal customers will disagree.3 Younger age groups are most likely to support a business when their beliefs are aligned. The older demographic is most likely to oppose a business (presumably, stop buying things from the business) when their beliefs are not aligned. In between these two groups, consumers engage in supportive or opposing behaviors to a lesser extent but are more likely to engage in both behaviors, depending on the business.3

Aside from knowing how different demographics participate in society, another thing to study is your brand image and how it compares to that of your competitors. Jonah Berger authored "Contagious: Why Things Catch On," a book that explores controversy marketing and how it can help or hinder a business. He points out that your image and controversy might go hand in hand...or not. He says a brand like Mountain Dew needs to be a little edgy to compete with Red Bull and other beverages.4 That's why this controversial commercial wasn't as harmful to the brand as you might think. After all, Pepsico got to apologize for it, soothing the offended parties, while keeping the ad online for fans to keep sharing.

Keeping it Ethical

A final point, here. Don't cause controversy that could have dangerous consequences. You don't want that on your conscience. Don't promote violence. Don't give youngsters risky ideas. Keep it safe. 


  1. The Atlantic
  2. Forbes
  3. Jonah Berger
David Kalla