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Is controversial communication a good way of creating buzz?

August 21, 2015

Media coverage and social media impact are some of most direct ways for brands to measure the success of their communication campaigns. Yet both PR agencies and in-house teams continue to face one significant challenge: that of achieving brand visibility in a saturated and increasingly crowded market. Brands must generate buzz to feature on front pages, trend on twitter and be mentioned on television. To be a success it’s absolutely essential to stand out, but can we really say that we should do so by any means possible?

Victorian author, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde famously once said that “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” And he’s not wrong. There’s nothing worse for a client than being forgotten by the media and by influencers. Controversy is a way of standing out; but is it really a good approach?

High-profile brands across the world have used contentious communications strategies to reach and engage with their target audiences. In many cases these campaigns are risky, with brands taking the mindset that the ends justify the means. Well-known examples include United Colors of Benetton, Italian clothing store Nolita and the Spanish branch of the European Women’s Lobby (CELEM) with its Abortion Travel campaign.

Another example closer to home is the case of flight compensation platform, which in 2014 launched a campaign with Marco de Comunicación raising awareness of passenger rights after cancelled or delayed flights. The campaign targeted and attacked airlines directly, demanding honest explanations for disruptions through advertising campaigns, viral videos and both creative and controversial media relations. The strategy was a success. Over 1,400 media clippings in less than a year led to a 335% increase in sales and to establishing itself as the undisputed leader in flight compensation claims in over 120 countries.

There are many examples of brands which are controversial in themselves or which have embraced controversial communications. Durex, Sprite and Dolce & Gabbana, for example, have all used sex as a means of getting their message across. In these cases, the brand’s image and the positive response from the target audience led to good results and in turn to further controversial and more ‘risky’ campaigns.

Controversial strategies have also often used in the political world. A recent example is the Solo nos importan las personas (‘Only people matter to us’) campaign run by the rising Ciudadanos party. Party leader Albert Rivera appeared on party posters fully naked, preserving his modesty with his cupped hands, alongside the slogan “We don’t care what clothes you wear. We care about you.” Some considered the strategy scandalous and out of place in high-level politics, especially as the campaign gave the party far more media coverage and visibility in newspapers, on radio and on TV than it was technically due under electoral law. The party won three seats in its first elections for the Catalan Parliament.

Oscar Wilde wanted people to talk about him, even if they did so negatively, and these examples show that he was onto something. Controversial strategies can help brands to achieve their objectives, whether they’re fighting injustice or fighting an election. One thing that must be kept in mind, however, is the brand or cause that’s the focus of the campaign and the key messages that you want to transmit. That can never be lost sight of.

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