Controversial advertising: marketing ploy or lack of awareness?

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Some controversial ads simply miss the mark

Every day, we are exposed to up to five thousand advertisements. They're everywhere – on our phones, televisions, newspapers, radios, emails... the list is endless. Many of these adverts pass by our conscious awareness, with endorsements and subliminal messages peppered across social media. In the present-day, with consumerism at unprecedented levels globally, it's sad to say that unless you avoid all the trappings of modern life, advertisements are unavoidable.

What can brands do to make their adverts stand out from all the noise? There has been an increasing number of controversial advertisements released over the past decade; are these types of adverts deliberately pushing past the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable, to generate column inches for the brand?

Many of today's well-known brands have released questionable adverts at some point. In this article, we are going to explore the contributing factors of 'controversy', looking at examples of brand promotions that divided opinion.

Marketing ploy

There's no doubt that controversial adverts can create debate and garner an astronomical amount of attention for a brand. Although it might not be for the 'right' reason, it puts the brand in the spotlight – after all, it is said that 'any publicity is good publicity'. Although critics might not always agree with the message of an advert, there's no doubt that it can make the brand stick in people's minds.

In 2017 Pepsi featured high-profile celebrity Kendall Jenner in one of their adverts, which ended up creating a huge backlash due to its insensitivity. The advert shows a 'Black Lives Matter' protest, with policemen monitoring protestors. Kendall, who was on a modelling shoot in the clip, stops being photographed to hand one of the policemen a can of Pepsi, supposedly creating some sort of alliance between the police and the protestors, as the crowd then celebrate. The ad was controversial because it completely undermined the reason for the protest – the protestors were standing up against police brutality and racism, which is not a trivial problem that can be fixed by a fizzy drink. Pepsi retracted the ad and released the statement, 'we apologise... we did not mean to make light of any serious issue.' Whether this stunt has negatively affected the brand long-term is up for debate.

Taking a stand

Some advertisements seemingly take the moral high-ground, through appearing to support equality, and overtly demonstrating their opposition to negative themes in current society. Airbnb, the online hospitality website, released an ethical 'We Accept' advert, portraying a whole host of different people of all races, across snappy clips. This was showcased just nine days after President Trump signed an order to temporarily close America’s borders to refugees – coincidence? Possibly not.

The advert proved highly successful. The #WeAccept campaign was Airbnb's third ever largest driver of Earned Impressions, at over 87 million. On Twitter, their ad was the number one advertiser hashtag used during the Super Bowl (when the advert was first aired), with mostly positive reactions. Big businesses know that to connect with their audience they need to touch a chord – triggering a discussion of the advert and subsequently, the brand.

Taken out of context

When a brand is called out on a controversial campaign, they often apologise, stating they meant no harm. It's hard to tell if these are sincere apologies or not. Cosmetics brand, Dove, came under scrutiny last year when they posted a shortened version of their advert on Facebook, featuring a black woman taking off her top and turning into a white woman. People viewed this as insulting and insensitive as if the black woman was 'transforming' into a white female.

This goes against what Dove claims to stand for – the empowerment and beauty of people of all colours, shapes and sizes. Dove took the advert down and commented, 'an image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offence caused.' The black model in question, Lola Ogunyemi, has spoken about the message being misconstrued, as the ad was cut down for Facebook and the content was viewed as controversial due to this, as the editing took the message out of context. However, it seems unlikely that this wouldn’t have crossed the minds of either Dove or the advertising agency they used – or can consumers be too sensitive sometimes? It's all down to perspective.

It is no coincidence that often it's the biggest brands that are up for public scrutiny due to their advertising efforts – they can afford the 'best' advertisers in the business, who know how to create a reaction. There's a good chance that this very advertising has helped brands achieve a percentage of their success, by leaving a lasting impression, good or bad. Although cynical, sometimes it is hard to believe that big brands hold the interest in social issues and society as the most valuable reason for spending big advertising budgets. Regardless of this, sometimes their adverts, however controversial, can still get across a powerful message, raising awareness of world issues or supporting equality, encouraging debate and engagement.

Imogen Green, digital marketing assistant, Hydra Creative

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