Does Controversial Advertising Sell Product?

I recall fighting tooth and nail over some of the ideas my creative team would come up with in years gone by. With a sly smile, they would show me something that was way out there, something that could be argued was in the land of controversy…while others might say, in the land of bad taste.

“But it will get attention! And that is what we are all about! It will stop people in their tracks and make them pay attention.”

“But it will royally screw up their brand,” I would say.

Here’s one that you might remember that went viral in 24 hours and got 15 million views on YouTube in just eight days. The ad agency was tasked with dealing with Kmart’s out-of-stock issues. It’s absolutely brilliant and funny, but…

youtu.be/I03UmJbK0lA

…but, it created backlash and made it onto the Today Show asking if the ad went too far. Messages to kill the ad flooded in, but Kmart’s agency followed with another brilliantly conceived, but…

http://youtu.be/m1yir-p68xM

…but maybe too much and off-brand, with kids sounding like they’re swearing on TV.

Kmart is a family-friendly retailer. And this campaign was counter to their brand image. It gained incredible attention, but did it sell product? Kmart’s sales fell over 2% in that quarter. The lesson learned here, I think, is that if you want to be controversial, it has to fit the brand and you have to create that edge in the shopping experience. Kmart didn’t and people who loved the ads found nothing new and exciting at Kmart. And those that hated the ads shied away from shopping there.

Here’s one that worked, but everything fits (and I received it in our office Christmas gift exchange…and (testimonial warning) it works!)…

http://youtu.be/ZKLnhuzh9uY

32 million views on YouTube and a 90% increase in sales, expected to climb to $60 million. Reactions to the ad were extremely positive.

Here’s one that failed miserably and shocked everyone associated with the brand and was pulled the same day it ran…

http://bcove.me/561if14m

I think you can see why. Of all things, “suicide” doesn’t sell. It can have impact, but look out!

I find that when we can fit the sentiment of the ad with the sentiment built into the brand, and we can be controversial, we can win. Otherwise, controversy can stink in advertising.

(with help from Terry O’Reilly at CBC’s “Under the Influence”)