Controversial marketing campaigns that just work

6th Jul 2021

Throughout the years, controversial marketing campaigns have been few and far between. More recently, they’re becoming ever more popular. Is this due to the savvy marketing teams, with the likes of Aldi and Specsavers? Are modern buyers more receptive to satirical messaging? Or do they just bloody work, when done right!

With businesses putting more focus into reach and engagement, creating the next trending phenomenon is high up the priority list of marketing professionals across the globe, and what better way to gain that reach by creating content that’s a little close to the edge.

Before we go into some of our favourite controversial marketing campaigns, we’ll quickly cover off what the whole point of being controversial is.

There is a huge psychology behind opinionated content, but to cut a long story short, people are more likely to share content that aligns with their own values. These people usually have a social circle of like-minded individuals, who then share in their circles; and so on and so on.

Whilst there is a huge risk in isolating some of the public with divisive content, we believe controversial marketing has a huge advantage of allowing your brand to become more relatable to your target audience.

Now to the fun part. We’ve shared a couple of controversial marketing campaigns that work, and 1 that really, really doesn’t. 🤦‍♂️

The ones that worked…


a range of people from different cultures and backgrounds with "we all belong" text and airbnb logo - controversial marketing campaign

For some strange reason, Airbnb received initial backlash on their #weaccept campaign, due to Donald Trump’s travel ban, and limitations on immigration into America. The campaign, which came to life following the Syrian refugee crisis was built on the premise of global acceptance, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, or religion.

Airbnb made its stance on the matter, and whilst the majority of Trump supporters showed their dissatisfaction, it received 33,000 shares in the first 5 minutes of going live and generated 15,400 volunteer hosts. A perfect example of not sitting on the fence paying off!


Yorkie chocolate bars with 'not for girls' - controversial marketing campaign

When Nestle decided it wanted to target men back in 2002, it was instantly met with uproar for obvious reasons; Being branded ‘sexist’ and ‘misogynistic’ for this campaign. They have since, dropped the ‘No girls’ messaging and replaced it with ‘Man fuel for man stuff.’ Do we think Yorkie were sexist? Not at all! Was this a clever marketing ploy, that is infamous with Yorkie ‘till this day? Abso-bloody-lutely!


Mr Kaepernick with the #justdoit campaign for nike - controversial marketing campaign

Nike split the American nation with their 2018 Just Do It campaign, which was created to celebrate athletes who chased dreams, no matter the obstacle. For those that don’t know, the guy in the picture is Colin Kaepernick. Colin is a professional NFL player, who caused controversy in his own right, by ‘taking the knee’ during the American national anthem before games. This was to bring attention to racial & social injustice across America.

Nike completely polarised their audience. I would even go as far as saying there are some American nationals who still refuse to wear Nike for this campaign. But did it pay off? Of course, it did! Whilst a lot of credit goes to Mr Kaepernick directly, Nike actively stating their case on the matter solidified their position amongst certain communities. ‘Taking the knee’ is now a global-wide movement on racial & social injustice. Hats off, Nike!

And now the one that didn’t…


kendal jenner giving riot police a can of pepsi - controversial marketing campaign

Bad timing, or just plain stupidity, Pepsi had a bit of a ‘mare when they forked out a fortune to produce an advert, that caused a bit too much controversy for their own good.

The premise behind the advert showed some sort of protest composed of a widely mixed crowd. Kendall Jenner, who’s been doing a photoshoot nearby, stops, joins the protesters, and hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer to… save the day?

Whilst this sounds fine in essence, the timing couldn’t have been any worse. Pepsi decided to launch the advert at the same time Black Lives Matter protests, standing against police brutality, were happening across America.

The advert lasted 24 hours before it was canned, and Pepsi are still trying to clean up the mess it left behind. We’re with the people on this one, Pepsi; Complete. Advertising. Fail.

To sum this all up; yes, there are risks involved with controversial marketing. But, when done right, it pays off dividends and will allow you to become more relatable to your audience. Our only words of caution; timing and messaging is key, and there is a fine line between controversy and down-and-out plain offensive! Pick your battles carefully!

If you have any ideas, concepts or want to have a chat about how to make your marketing more impactful, we’re only a phone call, or email, away.