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Do Controversial Commercials Pay Off?

November 26th, 2019   ||    by Callie Wheeler

Controversial commercials shouldn’t be a surprise given our current cultural and political climate: a moment in time where celebrity could mean movie star or social media influencer, politicians may be institutional veterans or novice newcomers, and a 16-year-old from Sweden is driving global conversation around climate change. An idea no longer needs a traditional stage, like the nightly news or a national magazine, to spread quickly, and partisan divides seemingly grow wider and wider each year.

In a climate like this, brands are following consumers and their tastes, putting out bolder creative and more controversial messages. But why risk it? And is the risk worth it?

What Makes an Ad Controversial?

First, it’s important to define “controversial commercials.” A quick search will turn up all kinds of ads from the last decade, but plenty of them are simply bad, tone-deaf, or inappropriate. Take this example from USA Today: Hyundai’s 2019 Super Bowl ad, where Jason Bateman implies “beetloaf” is hellish. While that may offend some vegan viewers, the line was not a critique of beets or veganism; it was a joke.

That’s not the kind of ad we’re talking about. The kind of ads we’re analyzing are intentionally bold, attempting to make a statement about an issue or align a brand to its audience’s ideals.

Why Are Brands Taking the Risk?

While taking a stance may be risky, brands aren’t left with much of a choice: nearly two-thirds of global buyers will either buy or boycott a brand according to its position on social or political issues. Edelman calls these respondents in its study “belief-driven buyers.”

Extending just beyond the brand’s position, Inc. cited another compelling statistic, with more than half of millennials claiming they are more likely to buy from brands with activist CEOs.

Does the Risk Pay Off?

So do these ads pay off? It depends. Let’s take two well-known examples to see what makes some controversial commercials successful while others flop.

  • First, the flop: Pepsi’s infamous “Live for Now” ad starring Kendall Jenner. The ad was released in a climate of political activism and protest, dramatizing that reality and then Pepsi-fying it, with protesters carrying blue signs and handing out cans of soda. How did it miss the mark so spectacularly? Everything, from the cheerful nature of the protest to the reality star saving the day by handing Pepsi to a (five o’clock shadowed, unarmed?) police officer, rang hollow and irreverent. As Adweek covered the backlash, a consistent critique came to light: the brand was co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement and other political resistance for its own profits.
  • Possibly the most controversial ad in recent years, Nike’s “Just Do It” commercial starring Colin Kaepernick is also the most successful. Praising the former NFL player’s sacrifice for his beliefs, the ad prompted some customers to burn their Nike shoes or speak out against the company, but the negative reaction was outweighed by positive response. The brand earned about $43 million in media coverage within 24 hours of the commercial’s release, the ad received an Emmy and other awards, and it augmented the brand’s existing reputation of standing for racial and gender equality.

The Takeaway

For controversial commercials to be effective, they need to make a connection to the brand’s audience and they need to be an authentic representation of the brand itself. If the company has a history of activism, these messages may make sense; if not, backlash is likely to be swift.

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