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Controversy – Packing A Powerful Marketing Punch

Have you ever had the temptation to stir the pot? I’m sure you’ve had it on a personal level and possibly a professional level too.  It’s the cheeky child in us all.  It’s almost like that big shiny red button that you should not press… well my advice, within reason of course, is press it.

Controversy is a powerful marketing tool

Look at how certain corporations use it such as Ryanair. I have to start by differentiating scandal and controversy – I’m talking about controversy as in using imagery and messages that draw attention for dubious or humorous reasons – not illegal behaviour that draws massive media attention for all the wrong reasons.

A prime example being the recent GAA Hunky Dorys advert – it’s amazing how a simple advert got so much value-add public relations.

Dividing opinion is great

Yes it can cause hullabaloo and while 50% of the audience may despise your techniques, 50% may indeed love it.  Don’t be nervous of stirring the pot if you feel you’re not going to cause major offence. Admittedly I had a close encounter back in my greenhorn days– a bold move that I somehow miraculously emerged unscathed.  It was a national school competition for growing fruit and vegetables.

Knowing that this particular prize ceremony was hardly ‘hard news’ I decided that this press release subject line would have to pack a punch to grab the attention of the journos –  I went with ‘Children Rewarded for Seedy Behaviour’. It worked, got lots of coverage and I’m still alive.

Where’s the line?

I think that really depends on your target public and how edgy you can be.  For example, United Colours of Benetton have been slammed in the past – I personally think that the image above is smart and clever.  Do you think it goes too far?

Do you ever push that red button? Give me some examples of how you took a risk that did/didn’t pay off in the mission to grab attention.

“Image from

ME: Marketing Manager, SaaS; co-founder of; Social Media Junkie; MSc in Strategic Management; Opinions my own and they may offend (not intentionally of course).

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  • Hi Connor, this is a challenging post particularly after Paula’s most recent one here:
    I personally don’t have much of an issue brands with using controversy, but that’s probably because I don’t see the examples you mention as that controversial. If I did, perhaps my opinion would be different so maybe it ultimately comes down to what we find controversial?  However, I would say that there are so many ways to do really creative marketing, I wonder is ‘controversial’ just a lazy option?         

  • Connor Keppel

    Interesting take Niall and I agree controversy is subjective.  Nonetheless I wouldn’t agree that it’s lazy provided it is creative and provokes thought – not just controversial for the sake of it. Thanks for the comments

  • Personally I feel that this goes too far, it made me squirm!  Getting a marketing message that’s edgy and makes you take notice takes a lot of skill and if done well can reap results.  Wish I could think of one!

  • Most big companies utilizing this marketing strategy. Putting a little interesting controversy on their ads were people talking about their promotion. Small businesses can also do this marketing through online marketing. 

  • Fair points, Connor! But I think O Leary (who I actually admire) takes the easy way out when it comes to marketing.

  • Hi Niall, Connor, just on the O’Leary example, and many like him – lazy? I think it’s made to look easy and lazy but he rarely comes out of it red-faced, thereby executing a successful PR or marketing strategy. Many try to emulate that and get lots of egg on their face in public. So some credit is due for what seems easy and random, me thinks. This is 100% my opinion – no facts have been harmed in the making of this comment

  • lol! Brilliant! 

  • Connor Keppel

    When you hold a foam cut-out of ‘Bloggertone’ to your nether regions in front of national media and call it easy I’ll agree.  Ha ha. Only kiddin’. I take your point. I’m biased I suppose coz I think he’s a genius. 

  • I LOVE that picture, it hits people in their discomfort zone and makes them think and that is part of the message Benetton has been sending out for years.  First it was race, now it’s religion.  Great post Connor, I think being controversial is much better than sticking within the norm.

  • Connor Keppel

    Amen sister 🙂 

  • For controversy to work. You have to know your public very well and make sure your controversial in a way that your public your public will approve. That way, you get positive publicity from your targeted market and a lot of PR from the controversy in the market you’re not targeting. That’s what Benetton did. I never really found their adds that controversial, just a bit pointless. So I guess I’m in the middle ground Blah! category.

  • Connor Keppel

    Hi Keira, I agree completely on knowing your audience.  It’s getting the balance of going far but not too far.  Benetton wouldn’t be my favourite either, but still an effective example I think.  Thanks for reading!

  • Great post, Warren!

  • Happy Chinese New year too!!!

  • Gong Xi Fa Chai! to all our East Asian readers both near and far!

  • William: Do you need to create a special account, or is it in the same account that you already have? Could you give examples of companies that have used the custom timeline?

  • Thanks Sian, yes it makes sense and it’s already happening so well done to Inhiro for spotting the opportunity.

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