Best Practices for Controversial Creatives

By Celtra

best practices controversial

“The cleverest thing an advertiser can do is the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Sometimes it’s risky, yes; but it’s better to be talked about than not talked about.”

– Daniel Hennessy, regional creative director of the Americas, Dyson (to CNBC

Ads are engineered to get attention. Considering the overwhelming amount of content we encounter on a daily basis, this has never rang more true. And certainly, controversy is a surefire route to get it. It can easily backfire though. Publicly distributing something controversial poses a big risk for brands. If you miss the mark, you’ll likely be met with some damage to your image. 

Keeping this in mind, the potential for widespread buzz remains too enticing to just write off. Plus, incorporating an edge is increasingly accepted and often favored. So when venturing into controversial territory, be sure to exercise the following best practices we’ve been fortunate enough to learn from others.  

Provoke thought 

At the heart of the controversy is opinion. We all have them. And when we experience something that aligns with our personal values, we get very excited. It creates a pack mentality while simultaneously validating our own thoughts. When controversial ads offer this type of reinforcement, viewers are not only smugly nodding with approval, they’re also eager to spread the word. The converse works well too. Out of disapproval, they’re also fueled to make their stance clear to everyone they know and their mothers. 

In Equinox’s “Commit to Something” campaign, they released a series of images that dealt head-on with cultural issues as well as lifestyle choices. For instance, one photo featured a woman breastfeeding in public while another included a muscular man bathing shamelessly in cash. Ultimately, Equinox achieved 735 million earned media impressions (or the equivalent of a $70 million spend). Not to mention, they saw an 81% increase in sales leads.

(Photo credit: Steven Klein) 

Use caution to avoid 

  • Muddling a message by trying to convey either too many messages or an overly complicated one. 
  • Getting too extreme with subjects in an effort to drive a message. 

Indulge in taboo 

Since we’re endorsing controversy, it would be difficult to ignore the taboo. Such matters are exciting since we see them so infrequently in our day-to-day lives. There’s also a sense of intimacy when presenting topics which are usually kept private. Taboos can mean many things and vary widely by culture. However, there is still some common ground for everyone. 

In Poo-Pourri’s “Girls Don’t Poop” ad, the company moves from the traditional imagery of beautiful nature and encounters the topic directly, no matter how uncomfortable. The delivery is brilliant — humorous, relatable, and still within the bounds of sufficiently safe advertising all at once. As a bonus, the aesthetics latter-up to Poo-Pourri’s product branding, even while it’s a video format. 

Use caution to avoid 

  • Incorporating a topic that is too taboo. Meaning, the topic is blatantly offensive, inappropriate, or alarming.  
  • When dealing with a taboo topic, make sure you remain tasteful. Steer clear of repelling your audience. 

Be funny 

Coming up with a truly funny ad is hard enough, being both controversial and funny is an art. There are a few pointers that can help you nail the craft though. For one, understand your audience on a deep level. Identify where they would draw the line between something risky and plain obnoxious. Every crowd is different, so make sure you’re hitting the right notes with yours. 

For example, GoDaddy’s “Wallace Berry” demonstrated the brand’s understanding of effective humor. In the ad, a beautiful model embodies the “outside of GoDaddy” while a nerdy type represents the “inside.” Sure, this wouldn’t be the right fit for a brand centered around female empowerment, but it presents something funny without actually entering insensitive territory. Plus, it overtly acknowledges the fact that sex sells. 

Use caution to avoid

  • Using any type of tone-deaf material. If it’s centered on offending an entire group of people then it lacks tact. 
  • On the flip side, trying to be funny without going big enough. Comedy should be a little more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill messaging. 

Make it relevant 

Creating content that is both timely and specific to your audience is essential when dealing with controversy. You want to deliver something that actually resonates through clever delivery. As such, the creative should prove its understanding of the modern world as well as of who it’s aiming to reach. Imagine a divisive ad built on a concept entirely unrelated to your principles. It would fail to hit home. 

Benetton’s “Unhate” campaign was definitely eye-catching. Using universally-recognizable figures instantly catches everyone’s attention. Making them politicians takes it a step further. And what really takes it home is the kiss. 

On the ads, the company released a statement saying, “contrasting the culture of hatred and promoting closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures, and the peaceful understanding of each other’s motivations.” Clearly, the campaign makes a statement beyond shock. Although they are a clothing brand, Benetton made a much deeper statement about their brand’s character with this ad, one which aligns with the rest of their marketing materials. And since it’s one of positivity, it worked extremely well. 

Use caution to avoid 

  • Relying too heavily on culturally relevant topics which are irrelevant to your long-term image. 
  • Applying a stance on a very divisive topic. Even though it might represent the majority of your audience, it won’t work if it blatantly excludes a commonplace perspective. 

Launching a controversial campaign is challenging. But the payoff can make it more than worth it. As long as your creative team is diligent about their approach, you can certainly avoid a fiasco and even make an unparalleled impression.

Ready to learn more about producing standout creatives? Contact us today. 

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