Is Controversy A Good Marketing Strategy?

We're now living in an attention-deficit world, isn't it?

Everyday, an average human is bombarded with so many marketing messages. Be it on desktop, mobile, social media, podcast, articles, videos or billboards, you find ads everywhere. All these ads are competing for your limited attention. If you throw up 200 ads across me in a day, I won't pay attention to each & everyone of them. May be a few out of those that trigger my emotion may stick.

Because of this attention-deficit, most marketers are struggling to generate a postive ROI on their ad spending. Even the best of best ads may not work. There's no success formula for marketing campaigns.

As per a stat, 86% of the consumers suffer from a syndrome called "Banner blindness". That means their brains are wired to ignore banner ads no matter in whichever format or size its served.

And, as per another stat, in the US alone, 26% of internet users have ad blocker extension installed on their browsers. That means their browser will block all digital ads irrespective of the source or medium.

However, even in this ad bombardment era, the fundamentals remain the same. If you ads disrupts your audience's attention, they'll work. Or else it won't. But note that the definition of "disruption" is changing fast. What was disruptive in 2002 isn't disruptive anymore. What's disruptive in 2020 won't be the same in 2030. Therefore, as a marketer, its important that we ride the trend. And, today's trend shows that people are sick of click-bait headlines like - "How I made $ 100,000 in one week". If you want to gain their attention, you need much more than a click-bait headline.

So, how do you cut through the noise & make your brand message stand out? Enter controversial marketing. A new trend in modern marketing. Controversy, if marketed tactfully, raises eyebrows, stirs social media discussion & creates the right kind of buzz.

Now, let's discuss the many facets of controversial marketing.

Pros of Controversy Marketing

Increased Sales

The #1 advantage of controversy marketing is the increased revenue it generates. If your controversy marketing works as intended, it'll improve the top-line dramatically. I've data to backup this claim (will share later in this post).

Cost Effective

The crux idea of running a controversial campaign is to generate positive ROI by keeping the cost low. If you run a tradional campaign, you'll need to churn thousand of dollars to reach new audiences. But, with controversy on your side, its people who'll share your campaigns with others for FREE.

Social Media Engagement

Brands dream of getting people talk about them on social media. After all, who doesn't like free publicity? All those likes, tweets, shares, stories or upvotes without spending a dime.

Most importantly what gets generated on social media stays on it for long. In other words, social media buzz has long-lasting passive impact. As your campaign gets viral, it'll trigger a domino effect (will continue to spread for days if not months).

Brand Awareness

Yes, small business owners can also take advantage of controversial marketing. If you're an unknown brand & your campaign strikes the right chords, you'll create a tremendous brand awareness. Your target audience who didn't knew your brand in the first place will recognize you & would start exploring your offerings.


In controversy marketing, you got to take a stand (I'll talk more about it later). The advantage of taking a stand is that you'll attract the right kind of audience to your brand. The flip side being you'll repel the wrong kind of people (whom you don't want to target). That means your brand positioning will become stronger than ever.

Word of Mouth

In controversy marketing, words travel via offline channels as well. Imagine someone just saw your controversial ad in her office. She'll most probably talk about it with her colleagues. Or, may be she'll discuss about it during a call from her close friend. That's the power of word-of-mouth.

Long-Term Impact

What's created on social media, stays there. May be for many days or months. Once the campaign goes viral, a domino effect starts. One person may share the ad with his 500 friends or followers & then those 500 share it with 25,000 followers or friends (assuming each one of them have 500 friends or followers). And, social media algorithms are designed to reward viral posts. So, your campaign will also be shown organically to millions others who again will spread it further.

Cons of Controversy Marketing

Risk of Backlash

The biggest drawback of controversy marketing is that it can backfire. If you haven't done your homework well & launched a controversy ad in hurry, you'll have to pay for it. Using the steps shown in this article, you can minimize this risk. Keep reading.

Upsets a Certain Section of Audience

I consider this as an advantage as well as a disadvantage. On disadvantage side, you may by inviting controversy, you can upset a certain section of your audience. But, again, the advantage is you'll position your brand better by attracting only the right kind of audience.

Example: If your brand is targeting millenials & your controversy ad upsets 30+ people, then its fine. You just strengthened your positioning. After all, your brand isn't for everyone. Also, as a general rule of marketing, all brands should be focused on their own well defined audience. Trying to impress everyone isn't a good marketing tactic. Speak only to your own specific group of target audience whom you want to do business with.


You may also land into litigation if you advocate something thats barred by the law.

Controversial Ads That Worked For Brands


On June 25th 2012, Oreo uploaded the following photo on its Facebook page:

It was a rainbow themed cookies supporting gay rights. This simple photo ad (video wasn't a thing then) created a storm on the internet. Gay rights opponents started calling for boycott of Oreo cookies. But, Oreo very smartly got what it wanted. Yes, the limelight.

The aforesaid image ad got 20,000+ comments, 195,000 likes & 58,000+ shares on Facebook. The best part? The ad was well-aligned with Oreo's corporate values - diversity & freedom.


Nike is one of my favorite brands. I love the way this company positions itself. Their brand message is filled with clarity. And, their target audience is very defined.

In August 2018, Nike made Colin Kaepernick the face of its new campaign "Dream crazy". Here's the campaign video:

Colin is a baseball player who got into controversy for not standing up for the national anthem. He did that because he feels a section of people in the US feel oppressed. He wanted to take a stand against that oppression. Following that controversy, he faced backlash & even death threats. For a brand like Nike to collobrate with Colin was indeed a bold step. And, it paid off.

The aforesaid video was viewed by more than 1 million people.

UN Women

On November 13, 2013, the UN Women launched an ad campaign titled - "The Autocomplete truth". And, it went viral.

The video till date has been played more than half a million times on YouTube. It was controversial because it spoke about a harsh truth - how women are actually treated in the world. The ad compared women achievement with the ground reality. When you type "women should" in google, the suggestions indeed are disappointing.


Starbucks is known for its trademark coffee. And, as well as for its fair share of controversial marketing.

The following image says it all. Starbucks red holiday cups' designs have been changing since 2009.

The 2015 design created a stir in the section of audience. A percentage of them believed that the latest design was an insult to Christianity value & principles.

But, from marketing point of view, Starbucks got massive media coverage & buzz because of this controversy.

Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius's super bowl 2016 ad wasn't in good taste. It seemed as though they were glorifying criminals & the crime they committed.

Here's the actual ad (not the full version though):

This made Toyota Prius the talk of the town & garnered some buzz.


Immigration is a debatable issue in the United States. Airbnb capitalized on it by lauching an ad campaign - "We Accept". It was also targeted at Donald Trump's views on immigration.

Here's the ad campaign:

Sure the immigration opponents got pissed off, but on the brighter side Airbnb made its positioning clear. Airbnb tried to convey its brand value too - pluralism & acceptance.

This video was viewed by a whopping 2 million people worldwide.

Examples: What Did Not Work


Gillette ad on "toxic masculinity" came when the #MeToo movement was at peak. And, it was viewed more than 360,00,00 times on the YouTube. The ad caused a massive controversy & was downvoted 105,000 times.

If you pick a topic that's too sensitive, it may backfire & that's what happened with this campaign. Read the comments on YouTube & you'll come to know what I'm talking about.


Dove was massively criticized for its following ad:

It was termed as racist by majority of the audience. And, with this, Dove failed to create the right kind of stir. Majority of people are against racism & if you launch a campaign that promotes racism then its bound to fail. Following the backlash, Dove removed the ad & even issued a public statement expressing regret.

Protein World

Protein world, a nutrition & weight-loss brand lauched an ad campaign with the words "Is your beach body ready?". The campaign massively backfired with people accussing Protein World of body shaming.


Nivea made the same mistake that Dove did. It glorified a skin color by creating a racist ad.

Nivea had to immediately remove the ad & issue a public apology.

How To Create A Successful Controversial Marketing Campaign

Step 1: Look for a social issue that resonates with your brand & audience

First, you need to pick a topic on which your campaign will be based. Such topic generally should be a social issue with divided opinion. At the same time, the topic should resonate somewhat with your brand message & target audience.

Step 2: Check if the issue has a debatable element in it

The topic chosen at Step#1 shouldn't be 100% polarized. There should be a debatable element in it. Example: If you say that the earth is flat, 99% people will oppose you. That's a polarized topic not debatable.

Step 3: Take a stand on the issue

After you've finalized the topic, you then need to take a stand on it. Your stand will form the theme of your ad campaign.

Step 4: Evaluate the risk of taking a stand (the worst case scenario)

This is a crucial step. You need to study & evaluate the risk of your controversial ad. What're chances that the ad will backfire? And, what're the risks as a result of that backfiring?

Step 5: Create an ad campaign

This step involves creating your ad campaign. Make sure its in format that your target audience is willing to accept. For millenials, short videos may work better but for 40+, even images may do.

Step 6: Test & survey your target audience

Time to test & beta release your ad. Show your ad to a small section of your target audience & listen to their feedback. If required, edit your ad based on that feedback.

Step 7: Prepare a backup plan

Based on the risk evaluated at Step #4, you need to have a backup plan. If the ad faces backlash (much more than what you had estimated) then you need to immediate launch your backup plan. Just like calling the fire ambulance when your house catches fire.

Step 8: Release & boost the ad

Time to release the ads. Make sure you publish your ad at all social media platforms that resonate with your targeted audience. I suggest you boost your ads by running a paid promotion for a few days. After that, it'll take off from there.

Step 9: Monitor social media engagement

Post publish, you need to carefully monitor your audience response to your ads. What're people commenting? What's the percentage of upvotes to downvotes? Are our target audience comfortable with this ad?(check watch time) Is it trending on Twitter, if yes then what're the hastags?

Common Controversy Marketing Traps You Must Avoid

Stunt vs Controversy

You need to understand the difference between a stunt & a controversy. If you launch a controversial ad just for the sake for quick buzz then people would come to know.

If there's a genuine social issue that you feel your brand should take stand on. And, you feel that stand will resonate perfectly with your target audience then you're on the right path.

100% Polarized

If you pick a topic that's 100% (near to about) polarized then your ad will fall flat on its face. And, you'll invite trouble for your company.

Example: Poverty is a big global problem. I'm sure almost 100% of people would agree to that. If you take an opposite view on this topic, then no one can save your ad.


You cannot pick a topic that's illegal. If gambling is illegal as per your country's laws then you can't advocate gambling in your ads. Not only will you draw public criticism but also piss off law makers & other government authorities.

Permanent Damage

Even if you're 100% sure that your controversial ad will work, make sure you study the repercussions well. A small brand cannot afford permanent damage. A big brand can do some PR exercises & win back public goodwill. So, assess where your brand stands & don't risk doing something that will permanently damage your brand's goodwill.

Test & Survey

Test, test & test before even you think of releasing an ad campaign to the public. That way you can gauge the mood & feelings of your audience.

Going Beyond The Boundary

As a society, its important for us to respect the boundaries. Even if something is legal that doesn't mean its moral. So, take care that you don't nudge a topic that's considered immoral in the society.