The Key to Social: Be Controversial

Toby Margetts Engagement Consultant, Beyond

Posted on May 31st 2013

The Key to Social: Be Controversial

Have a call to action to increase PTAT. Include a nice picture to boost ‘Edge Rank’. Optimise the length of your update.


How about you actually say something? Have an opinion. Say something unexpected. Be controversial. Get noticed. The social cemetery is littered with the cadavers of brands from yesteryear that did everything by the book, yet remain confined to the annals of history because they didn’t rock the boat.

Here are a few prime examples of brands that have courted controversy and come out the other side shining, dealing with the most vicious and discerning audience of all: the Internet.


In June, 2012, confectionary brand Oreo posted its ‘pride cookie’:


Oreo accompanied its post with: “Proudly support love!” in clear support of gay rights - an issue that continues to polarise the United States, a territory where Oreo is extremely popular. In a matter of seconds, Oreo, usually known for its inane and wacky ramblings on the best way to consume its sugary treats, thrust itself into the frenzied midst of a social and political debate. Everyone that was talking about gay marriage was suddenly talking about Oreo because the brand dared to voice an opinion.  

The update received over 140,000 likes and 19,000 comments. Many were from disillusioned churchgoers claiming Oreo was destroying religious values and teaching immorality. Others commended the brand for its bravery and supported its stance on equality. The levels of social engagement were almost unprecedented and waves of media coverage followed, putting Oreo firmly in the public eye outside the context of the initial purpose of the post.

Oreo successfully drew the world’s eyeballs and its reputation soared, bolstered by its Manager of Corporate Affairs, Stephanie Minna Cass’ unwavering declaration that: “Kraft Food has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. The Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.”

It continues to be one of the fastest growing social brands on the planet.

American Red Cross

A somewhat less sophisticated but an equally opportunistic piece of social media sorcery was The American Red Cross and its reaction to an employee’s accidental tweet.

The tweet:






The apology:


The aftermath:





I’m not suggesting that American Red Cross faked an accidental tweet to encourage donations, as it would be totally unethical to do so, however the way in which it dealt with the situation in an smooth tongue-in-cheek manner turned a moment of heart-stopping negligence into a positive outcome for the charity.

It would take a very shrewd (and immoral) marketing person to emulate such success on purpose, but there are lessons to be learnt about how the social community reacts to brand controversy. In this case, by throwing money at it.

Abercrombie & Fitch

I accept that the inclusion of this case study goes against the concept of controversial social media posting because the comments made weren’t on social media. However, I felt it was important to include it as an example of how brands can face a social storm, even years after comments are made: once something is on the Internet it is truly there forever.

In 2006 Abercrombie & Fitch CEO, Mike Jeffries said "We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive, all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."



When these comments came to light in 2013, they caused uproar on social media, most notably Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But is this just a case of brilliant brand management by Abercrombie & Fitch?

The brand is saying something, regardless of whether you agree with the sentiment. It’s filtering out a significant population that they believe aren’t good enough to wear its clothes but by doing so, they further empower the remaining individuals that they deem themselves good enough, and also create desire among those who wish to wear the clothes to ‘earn’ the right to wear Abercrombie & Fitch. All very in-keeping with the stylings of such a pseudo-exclusive brand.

It’s a popular adage in the marketing industry that you can’t be all things to all people. Jeffries himself said: “Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

By making the comments, Jeffries has increased his brand’s perceived exclusivity. And with exclusivity comes desirability. Abercrombie & Fitch may face the wrath of those who don’t fall within its definition of who can wear its clothes, but it doesn’t cater for that audience in the first place, and therefore it doesn’t lose out. Its strategy panders perfectly to its actual target audience: the conceited, supercilious cliques whose social values of excluding the uncool and the unpopular are matched by Abercrombie & Fitch’s. A match made in heaven, despite questionable principles.

Can you think of other examples where social media controversy has resulted in a positive outcome for the brand involved? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


Toby Margetts

Engagement Consultant, Beyond

Toby works as an Engagement Consultant for full service, creative digital agency, Beyond.

A regular blogger on a wide variety of topics, Toby specialises in helping brands do bigger, better and more creative engagement on social. To read more of Toby's posts, head over to the Beyond Blog or follow him @tobymargetts

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Peter Visser
Posted on June 1st 2013 at 2:58AM

This is a great article. I was still wondering what I can do in my business to be more contraversial. Maybe you could give some examples of how a small business owner can stir things up a bit?