Controversial copy in the age of social outrag

Author: Helen Catchpowle
Published: 6th July 2016

Nothing seems to spread quite as quickly on social media as a juicy bit of controversy, and we’re increasingly seeing brands deliberately provoking outrage to get themselves noticed. It’s delivered results for some, but is intentionally offending potential customers really a good strategy? Well, it depends.



The ‘Beach Body Ready’ Backlash

We’ve all seen the infamous Protein World example. Their ‘Beach Body Ready?’ ads sparked mass social outcry and accusations of blatant body shaming. The brand was equally brazen in its approach to dealing with complaints on social, either dismissing or openly mocking those who complained.

Despite all the bad press, Protein World reported a massive leap in sales and over £1 million revenue from the campaign. Yes, they upset a lot of people, but let’s face it, they couldn’t care less. That’s because the majority of the people they offended weren’t part of their target market anyway, and Protein World was willing to alienate them to encourage brand loyalty among those who were.

If you’re looking to get noticed by a niche target market and don’t mind making a few enemies along the way, by all means, try your luck. Just be prepared to be defined by ‘that campaign’ for evermore. 


Veggies V Gourmet Burger Kitchen

What’s probably not a good plan is alienating existing customers. That’s what Gourmet Burger Kitchen (arguably accidentally) did when it appeared to forget that it did vegetarian and vegan burgers too.

With headlines including ‘they eat grass so you don’t have to’ paired with an image of a cow, they attempted to encourage camaraderie among meat eaters - apparently forgetting about their massive non-carnivorous customer base.

The response on social media wasn’t pretty, and they issued an apology sharpish. Still, many veggie and vegan customers insist they’ll be taking their custom elsewhere from now on. Oh burger.


#VoteyMcvotefail

Alternatively, you could try a campaign that misses the mark entirely, like the recent #VoteyMcvoteface.

Designed to encourage young people to get involved in the EU referendum debate, it aimed to capitalise on the popularity of #BoatyMcboatface by asking young voters to share their voting selfies on social media.

Its architect quickly admitted that it was intentionally ridiculous in an attempt to get it to go viral. Unfortunately for them, politically engaged young voters felt patronised and belittled, while those with no intention to vote remained oblivious.

The moral of the story - ‘going viral’ isn’t a sure-fire route to success.


So is sparking outrage a good strategy?

Sometimes it works, but be aware that you’re playing with fire. Brands need to think long and hard about the long-term effects of a strategy like this, and who they’re willing to offend to get there.

It’s true that outrage appears to travel faster than positivity, but which would you rather be remembered for?

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