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Do Controversial Ads really Work?

Have you ever watched an advertisement that moved you? Left you feeling shocked and confused? An ad that tugged on your heartstrings? Well, that’s exactly what controversial advertisements are all about. This article will explore all things controversial when it comes to advertising. You’ll learn what is shock advertising and whether it can make or break your company when applying this method to your campaign.

So let’s start by unravelling what does controversial mean?

Controversial ads send out a bold message that makes an impact on viewers and their feelings. Individuals will more likely remember something if it has triggered an emotional response. A risky move for many companies but it has shown some success in the past. However, if it goes wrong you risk your company facing Boycott which can damage your image in the public eye. That means it’s important to consider what other people think of bad advertising.

Let’s go back to the 80s when the Benetton group introduced controversial advertising to the public. This Italian clothing retailer created a campaign called “The Colors of Benetton”, an idea designed by their photographer Olivero Toscani. The focal point of this campaign was to grasp the viewer’s attention by using graphic images of real-world issues such as AIDS, hunger, and even death sentences. These topics were in no way related to Benetton products, but it marked a turning point in advertising which led to a worldwide debate around the campaign. After all, “any publicity is good publicity”. 

Here Are 2018-2019 Top Controversial Ads

Nikes 30th Anniversary Campaign (2018)

Labor day, a way to close out the summer in the States… or for Nike to launch their 30th Anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign. The ad featured Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL player who was dismissed from his football career after standing up for his beliefs and protesting against inequality of ethnic minorities. After refusing to stand for Americans National anthem during his games, the public deemed him as anti-American. His actions reflected the quote “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”.

Nike swooned in on this bold statement and applied it to their ‘Just Do It’ marketing campaign, taking it to a whole new level. A black and white headshot of this civil rights activist accompanied the quote. The public crazed over Nike’s choice of representative for their campaign and began boycotting the company, burning Nike products and posting images on social media with #JustBurnIt.

Lush: SpyCops Campaign (2018)

If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘SpyCop’, it means police officers going undercover to form intimate false relationships with women and activists as a way of retrieving information from them. Extreme, right?! But what has Lush cosmetics got to do with this? 

This cruelty-free brand set out to promote awareness around SpyCops and put their reputation on the line in doing so. Lush challenges police powers and shines a light on human rights with this controversy ad. Participating stores decorated their shop windows with police bands stating that “Police have crossed the line”. Many people criticized this challenging campaign and rallied against it in defense of the Police Force. 

Lush believes in the rights of all forms including animal-rights, equality, and human rights which is why they took this standpoint to raise awareness around sensitive social issues. But they may not have received the positive support that they wished. 

H&M: Coolest Monkey In the Jungle (2018)

H&M is known for running gender, race, and age-inclusive campaigns, but they are no stranger to controversy. Their latest racist move was last year when they used an image of a young black model wearing a jumper with the slogan “Coolest monkey in the jungle”. The advertisement caused an uproar on social media and was classed as “offensive, disturbing, and totally inappropriate”. 

H&M responded that they lacked awareness and made a marketing mistake. However, the public believes it was a publicity stunt to create a buzz around the brand. The Weekend, who former celebrity ambassador for the brand, cut all ties with them and refused to do any future work with the company. 

Heineken: Lighter is Better (2018)

To introduce their new product, Heineken Light, Heineken launched a 30 seconds ad that raised debate world-wide. The controversial ad shows a bartender sliding a bottle of Heineken Light along the bar, passing numerous people of color, before arriving at a woman with lighter skin. “Sometimes lighter is better” appears, and the ad ends there. 

As you can imagine, the ad wreaked havoc. Even those in the spotlight criticized the ad with Chance the Rapper publicly dissing the brand saying the ad is “terribly racist”. He went on to state that companies produce purposely racist advertisements to boost views.

Heineken ‘Lighter is better’ ad. Credit Video by Mary Berry

Gillette – We Believe Campaign (2019)

For the past 30 years, Gillette has expressed its products as “The best a man can get”, allowing them to promote themselves as the most successful brand in the industry. But their 2019 ‘We Believe’ campaign evoked questions around their mission. 

The ad begins with a strong narrative making reference to sexual harassment, bullying, and masculine toxicity followed by images portraying these negative behaviors. The purpose of this controversial ad is for men to hold each other accountable for this type of behavior as a way of bettering themselves and overcoming the general stereotype of men. 

The campaign received mixed reviews from the public with supporters believing the controversy reinforced positive behavior. Whereas critics saw it as degrading and offensive to the male population.

Gillette – We Believe Campaign video ad. Credit Video by Gillette

Should You Consider Controversial Ads or Is It Just Bad Advertisements?

Offensive ads can succeed in some cases, but is it really worth the risk of public backlash? Our world population is 7.7 billion so the likelihood that your controversial ad will not offend someone is low. Controversial advertisements can be seen as bad advertisements, as they come across ignorant and don’t consider user sensitivity. However, successful companies can use their status to raise awareness of world issues and to support equality, as long as they do not cross the line into offensiveness, racism or any other inequality acts. 

When it comes to PPC and controversial ads, this could go one of two ways in the digital arena. If your campaign is heavily criticized and people only want to view in order to backlash then this could cause serious damage to your business. On the other hand, if you address real-world issues and support equality, you can gain viewers’ loyalty, turning those into sales of your products as a support system from those who praise your campaign. 
Do you feel prepared to explore the opportunities behind controversial ads? Take a look at The Essential Digital Marketing Tools for tips to use for your campaign.

The header image used for this article is providedby freepik –


Since working for ClickCease, Oli has become something of a click fraud nerd, and now bores people at parties with facts about click farms and internet traffic stats. When not writing about ad fraud, he helps companies to optimise their marketing content and strategy with his own content marketing business.

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