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Why Controversy Works for Digital Campaigns, and Why You Should be Trying It

Working on social media campaigns can be tricky, especially when the client has no idea what they want. Yes, they know they want a viral video, which is going to get billions of shares, but they don’t want it to be different or controversial in any way at all, and they don’t actually specify how they intend to get there. That’s your job.

However, when you get down to working on said ‘viral’ ideas, the constraints applied to the fruits of your creative labours become tighter and tighter until you end up with a brief along the lines of “We want as many shares as Oreo got during that Superbowl blackout.” #FacePalm.

We’ve been told a billion times that content is King, but we’ve also had it drilled into us that there is no such thing as original content any more, so where do we even start? Coming up with new innovative ideas can be hard, but to get attention in the very crowded digital space, you need to be the best, and that’s never going to be the case if you’re just running a hashtag competition now and again, and you’re copying an idea that Tesco binned off six months ago for being rubbish.

We’re bombarded with motivational quotes about turning failure into success every day on Twitter and Instagram, so why are so many brands, businesses and start-ups so afraid to try something new and push a few buttons when they do?

‘Can you just make it the same as X?’ or ‘We want it like the one that Y did last week’ are suggestions that you hear a lot when you put together content ideas. Clients want to know that they’re safe, and no-one wants to be the one that has to pick up the flack at the end of the day when it all goes wrong.

Marmite’s campaign last year drew over 250 complaints (gasp!) from people who were obviously taking a break from being “outraged” by everything the read on the Daily Mail, but has it affected Marmite’s sales in any way whatsoever? It certainly hasn’t affected the fact that each of the videos on their YouTube channel have had upwards of 10,000 views each.*

There’s always going to be someone who finds you video offensive, no matter what it is. Even if it was magical unicorns frolicking in a field, firing rainbows out of their magical horns, there would be someone upset that they beautiful creatures were being confined to a field, and someone else who would be worried about the health and safety implications of them firing rainbows out of their horns willy-nilly.



 Picture credit: Northern designer extraordianaire Rob Sloan

When you think about it, these adverts have the advantage though, as even though people have been complaining about them, those complainants have still watched the video. They’re still adding to the viewer numbers, and the conversation, which is just going to increase the number of people watching and viewing. It’s a vicious cycle.

It’s important to remember the difference between controversial and offensive at this point. Sure, you should be coming up with ideas that ruffle a few feathers, but you want to steer clear of anything that might be considered offensive to a large group of people. It’s one thing if a couple of people are offended at the slight suggestion of a sexual innuendo (for example) but it’s something totally different if your campaign is sending out a sexist message.

When it comes to playing it safe, the mistake that a lot of people make is assuming that consumers really give a crap about their brand. Unfortunately, they don’t. Whether you’re selling detergent, shampoo or dungarees, all consumers are looking at is the price, and whether you’re selling it cheaper. I wrote a post about Ryanair, and how people don’t actually give a crap about their customer service, because they know they’re paying for the flight, and not a lot else.

If you want to get people talking about your brand, increase Twitter mentions, Facebook Likes and YouTube views, a controversial social media campaign will do that. If you’re looking to convert those views, mentions and Likes into customers however, you’re going to have to work a bit harder and work out how you can make controversy work for you. 

*Interestingly, I think Marmite have either removed the original videos, or removed and reuploaded them, as they have far fewer views than they did when the campaign came out, and a lot of the links to the videos referenced in a number of article don't work. 

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