In the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko stood up in a posh black suit, with slicked back hair, and shared the credo that “greed is good.” Some commentators would later conclude that this phrase effectively captured the spirit of the ’80s. Today, controversy is good.
The President of the United States stokes controversy on a recurring basis. Some might argue that controversy helped to get him elected. According to one media tracking firm, President Trump received $5.6 billion-worth of earned media throughout the entirety of his campaign.
In recent years, corporations have deliberately approached controversial topics as part of their marketing campaigns. In the past, brands didn’t want to be in the center of public debates. They actively tried to avoid it whenever possible. But if they subscribe to the “controversy is good” credo, they aren’t actually endangering themselves; they’re making themselves relevant. Case in point: Gillette.
The razor and personal care company released an ad that tackles the concept of “toxic masculinity.” The ad received nearly 24 million views on YouTube and a large amount of praise on social media. In particular, it seemed to spark approval from younger consumers, who are reportedly more values-conscious in their purchasing decisions and career paths.
But it also caused some backlash. Piers Morgan claimed that it is “absurd virtue-signalling PC guff” from a company that is eagerly fueling “the current pathetic global assault on masculinity.” (Morgan may also be trying to maintain relevance as part of his own self-marketing strategy.)
Time will tell whether the #MeToo-inspired commercial actually leads to an uptick in razor purchases. Enthusiasm on social media would seem to indicate that it could be effective. The company definitely received earned media. And perhaps the narrator’s message at the end of the ad reveals a dual meaning: “Because the boys watching today… will be the men of tomorrow.” Gillette isn’t just trying to craft good values for the future. It’s crafting a message for the next generation of consumers.
But last year, some brands found themselves immersed in less desirable controversies. In November, Dolce & Gabbana ignited an online debate after posting the now infamous “chopsticks ad.” In the video, a Chinese model in a sparkling dress repeatedly tries to eat different types of Italian food with chopsticks. Critics found this ad to be problematic in multiple ways. Leaked screenshots of a private Instagram conversation appeared to show Stefano Gabbana responding to criticism with racist language. The company claims that his account was hacked. But the chopsticks ad was actually preceded by many other D&G-related controversies.
The stakes for the Italian luxury fashion house could be high. According to a McKinsey report, Chinese buyers account for more than a third of global spending on luxury goods.
Offensive decision-making sometimes results from a lack of diversity on marketing teams. In other instances, the provocation is calculated (or miscalculated).
When asked if controversy is ever effective at achieving a campaign’s goals, Patrick Nycz, founding president of NewPoint Marketing, commented, “It takes a lot to rise above the noise.”
The fashion industry, in particular, has a long history of courting controversy.
Nycz explained, “Speaking of Dolce & Gabbana, creative that might be considered edgy, provocative, controversial or even offensive has the very same DNA that launched Brooke Shields’ career in 1980 and Kate Moss in the ’90s. A good brand is going to carve out its place in their category’s ecosphere.”
Agencies use the tactics that match well with their specific goals and target audiences. In some instances, a message’s “shareability” translates into cultural currency. “What better way to gain brand awareness than have every media agency talking about your brand for a news cycle?” said Nycz.
Nycz continued, “Every agency has access to digital analytics and data highlighting what the target audience is clicking on. So these ads are not created by accident. There are reasons for every image and visual that appears in an ad at that scale. These reasons almost always stem from trying to generate engagement from the target audience.”
That engagement might take the form of a like, share, follow, or comment. Nycz said that this top of funnel brand awareness can ultimately lead to purchases.