Have We Had Our Fill of Controversial Marketing?

When you think about the 80s and 90s, the style of marketing that comes to mind is "shock marketing" or "shock ads." Examples of memorable shock campaigns include "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs," which must be deemed effective if remembrance of it is an important factor in its success.  

The mid two thousand teens is an interesting time for those of us who like to ponder marketing tactics. We don't come across shock ads as often today. The most memorable ads of 2015 - 2017 are highly controversial, rather than shocking. Remember the "macro beer" Budweiser Super Bowl ad from 2015? It pictures curled-moustache-donning, beer-aroma-sniffing people; presumably Bud's idea of persnickety craft beer enthusiasts. In bold lettering, the commercial states "let them drink their pumpkin peach ale" and "This beer is made for drinking. Not dissecting," the latter referring to Budweiser. The day after the commercial aired, every craft brewery from sea to shining sea did their part in sharing the message indignantly. Time and time again, the beer company's intentions were judged and its morality was debated. Take a look.

But that was just one of the ads Americans debated. Calvin Klein designed a number of ads with photos of models who revealed a little too much, according to many Americans. A Match.com poster ad featured a woman's face, which was covered in freckles, and said "If you don't like your imperfections, someone else will." Many say Donald Trump's campaign strategy depended on controversy. Even ads that we are almost certain were never meant to be controversial ended up in headlines. A Gap photo that included a young white girl with her elbow resting on top of a younger black girl's head, for example. Some thought it was playful but others say it conveyed hidden messages.

Have We Had Enough Controversial Marketing?

In April of 2016, The Guardian published an article that asked the question "Have Charity Shock Ads Lost Their Power to Disturb?" The opinions in the article all lean toward "yes." People do get tired of depressing, shocking images. However, there's also a new channel that is at least as important as network TV stations and other traditional avenues of advertising. It is social media, where shares are an important measure of performance.

We have known for some time that comedy, warm fuzzy subject matter and mind-blowing discoveries are shared at a high rate. What we didn't know until more recently is that negative reactions like controversy would be as important in social media as the happy, positive topics. Just look at how popular the hashtag #drumpf (which was created by TV host John Oliver to show contempt for Donald Trump) is compared to a commonly used photography-related hashtag, #nofilter.

As we can see, #drumpf became extremely popular even though many of us don't like to speak about politics. It's fair to assume our natural desire for controversy had something to do with that. Speaking of politics, you know how controversially irritating superpac advertisements can be if you live in any state that is remotely contestable during an election. If anything can bring on a new era in marketing psychology, it's 8,000 ads that only attack or defend a political candidate; sometimes refuting an opponent's attack ad. Sometimes the refute is refuted! How do they have time for this? So what's next? Our tolerance for controversial marketing will be all used up at some point. We're betting that time is not far away.  What kind of emotional response will you drum up to promote your brand?

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David Kalla