The Drum Awards for Marketing - Entry Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

Advertising Greggs Shock Marketing

Greggs’ controversial stunt makes a cliché out of controversy

By Richard J. Hillgrove VI | Founder

November 21, 2017 | 5 min read

Christmas is coming but rather than celebrate a birth; we might end up witnessing a death – the death of cheap stunts to fuel banter marketing.

greggs nativity

Greggs Christmas sausage roll

The Greggs fiasco has put the lid on that particular pie, with their sausage-roll-in-a-manger advent calendar.

Let’s face it, this deliberate, childish attention seeking by marketers is becoming more and more ridiculous, not to mention a cliché and a bit of a yawn.

My prediction for 2018 is that content PR stunts will wear thinner than the ice in a melting snow cone.

Greggs’ ‘we’re sorry’ statement, following Dove and Pepsi’s lead, is half-baked at best and crosses a line of credibility when we see how the stunt has gone down.

For the cost of launching 500 limited edition calendars with a token for a different menu item behind every door, #greggsnativity trended for two days on Twitter last week and on Friday they’d reportedly sold out of sausage rolls.

You can see the strategy’s appeal. A less cynical approach might have been to admit: “We knew turning the baby Jesus into a sausage roll would save us a lot of money on buying advertising and get us viral online coverage. We’re happy.”

Yes, there was widespread, polarising publicity at the start of the week, but a poll on the TV show Loose Women indicated 82% of viewers thought it was fine. LBC found 75% of their listeners were in favour of the stunt.

So much for blasphemy.

We no longer feel the heart thump against the chest from novel and interesting ways to offend. Offence itself is losing its power.

Marketers are at an all-time, creatively-bankrupt low when they pull this sort of stunt with no substance. It’s like living the hollow life associated with “raunchy, empty sex with strangers” described by Pamela Anderson in Times Magazine.

The good news is we’re going to see a move away from morning TV banter marketing towards more fully immersive shock and awe tactics.

One good example was U2 imposing their 2014 Songs of Innocence album on every iTunes account holder, whether you wanted it or not. No deity, belief or culture was held in contempt.

The rise of consultancies such as Accenture, EY and Deloitte doing their own ‘beach takeovers’ will increasingly be a trend and live experiences will become totally integrated with digital sales. Virtual reality from Facebook with its US $199 headsets must surely lead that charge.

People’s desensitisation to advertising messages is on the increase as we take in more and more feeds on our smartphones from an increasing number of sources and PR agencies will have to up their game.

Taylor Herring, which represent Greggs, is well known for news grabbing stunts for TalkTalk with their Emoji report, Samsung’s sponsorship of Crufts, Amnesty International, Whistl, the Apprentice and the National Lottery.

There’s a button on Taylor Herring’s website for ‘news generation’ where they offer to add “firepower to product launches with creative news hooks and shareable content to bring our client’s story to a much bigger audience”.

In the case of Greggs, the bakery chain willingly dropped their family brand ethos for banter marketing in the style of Paddy Power - another Taylor Herring off and on client. It’s a gamble that will only have paid off short-term.

Perhaps with only 1.5% of the country regularly attending church now, marketers see Christ an easy target. But according to a comprehensive 2012 study of more than 230 countries by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2.2 billion, or 32% of the world’s population is Christian in belief.

It’s not as if Christian and other religious themes haven’t been the targets in the past. Jesus has certainly had a right going over by artists and advertisers for years, but usually there’s an aesthetic or important point to be made behind expropriating the icon and debunking a belief system.

In film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian still stands out. In the art world, we’ve seen a meteor-hit pope, crucifixes submerged in urine and Israeli soldiers re-enacting the Last Supper.

This image of Jesus subverts the story of the ‘prostitute’ Mary Magdalene anointing her Lord’s feet. On the face of it, some may think it blasphemous, but it throws a harsh light on how the Bible represents women.

The Greggs advent calendar wasn’t making any cogent point with their three wise men praying over a sausage roll placed over a manger. It was just blowing up bridges for the fun of it, controversy for money’s sake.

That’s a far cry from controversy peeling off the top layer to allow something fresher to emerge and grow.

We’ve reached the zenith of that kind of marketing, and the only way to go from here is down.

Bang On to Richard on email and Twitter @6hillgrove

Advertising Greggs Shock Marketing

More from Advertising

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +