All you need to know about Controversial Marketing!

All you need to know about Controversial Marketing!


How far can marketers go to promote their brand?

They create controversies!

In this article, we will discuss the strategy that marketers use to “seek attention” for their brand by promoting their product in the most unexpected way. The strategy we are referring to here is controversial marketing.

This example will help you understand better.

Nivea is a well-known body care brand. The brand made controversy with its “White is Purity” advert for its invisible deodorant.

The ad was called out for being racist because of its tagline.
Let us see the reaction of a Twitter user to the ad.

“What the HELL is this? White Purity?”
Okay, let us look at another response,

“Shame Shame Shame on you. Fire your marketing person and anyone who approved this ad.”

There were a thousand tweets like these for the brand Nivea. We are not saying that it was a success or not, but one thing is surely accomplished, and that is brand awareness.

What is Controversial Marketing?

Every marketing campaign aims at generating awareness for the brand, and for that, the marketers create content that forms an impact on the audience.

Controversial marketing means intentionally designing promotional content that is likely to create disagreement, stir up debates, and offend the audience. The reason for the strategy being controversial is that it violates the beliefs, sentiments, and values of a particular society.

There is a thin line difference between surprise and shock, and what controversial marketing does is use this variation to create their marketing strategy. Shock is a negative emotion, but surprise can be both negative and positive as well.

Do not confuse controversial marketing with marketing blunders. Blunders are mistakes that marketers make in marketing strategies, but controversial marketing is intentional actions by marketers to create disagreement among the audience.

Having both the elements, the marketing strategy creates controversy, and controversies are born to create buzz.

For some, the strategy might work, but sometimes it might go wrong.

So let’s see how controversial marketing works for the brands.

How does it work?

The purpose of doing controversial marketing is just like any other marketing strategy is to boost sales, increase awareness, and earn a profit. But what makes the marketer take such a risky step to promote their brand, and is it even profitable?

Controversial marketing might be a success or not, but the fact that cannot be denied is that it gives immense popularity to a brand. It can be in a negative or a positive light.

Every coin has two sides, and similarly, there are two kinds of audience perspectives. One can be in favor of the issue that marketers raise in marketing, and the other can be against the issue.

Let’s understand it with the flow of this marketing strategy:

Controversial Start

First, the marketers create any promotional campaign on any sensitive issue that might create unrest among the audience. It can start discussions and debates among audiences on various digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook. So this brings the attention to the brand that it aims to achieve.


The more people talk, the more the marketing campaign gets popular. The campaign gets all the attention from media because the media is always hungry for stories that give their channels high TRPs.

Brand Awareness

If the brand is getting media coverage for its controversial marketing campaign, it will be known by all. Media spreads the news like wildfire, and it gives the brand advantage to be a well-known brand. Here, one of the purposes of the marketer is met.

Success and failure

Now, the decision of its failure and success lies in the hands of the audience. If the campaign results in increasing the brand’s customers, then it becomes evident that their campaign is successful. But it can turn against the brand if the audience that does not like the marketing campaign boycotts the brand.

Effects of Controversial Marketing


Creates buzz

“Man is a social animal.”
We humans love to socialize.
The brands offer the audience sensational topics of discussion on a platter so that the people to debate and discuss them. It creates an amount of word of mouth for the brand. That’s how they create buzz around their brand.

Elicits emotion

The brands touch those sensitive issues that affect people’s emotions. If the audience connects emotionally with any brand, then it can work in favor of the brand.

Makes your brand unforgettable

Controversies are something that no one forgets. The amount of publicity that controversies get is the reason that it lasts in the audience’s memories forever. That is how brands make their brand unforgettable.


Destroy Brand Image

If the brand goes too overboard with the controversy, then it can destroy the image the brand has built over the years. One controversy can demolish all that the brand has achieved so far

Brand boycott

Today if the public does not like something, they boycott it. That’s how the audience deal with the controversial campaigns the brand creates. The boycott declines sales and vanishes the product from the market.

Brand out of focus

There are chances that the whole focus can shift from the brand and all that people talk about is the controversy. It creates no awareness and no profit situation for the brand.

6 of the most Controversial Marketing ads of our time

Burger King: It can blow your mind away!

Burger King Controversial Marketing

Burger king’s super seven inches sub ad can certainly, blow away the audience’s mind, as their tagline says. Most of the audience understands what the ad is depicting in this poster.
The ad is controversial because of its sexual connotations. In the ad, we can see a woman looking at the sub with a surprised look on her face. If it was not enough to depict oral sex discursively, Burger King added a tagline, which made it obvious that it is a deliberate act by the brand.
Using the word ‘blow’ and ‘seven-incher’ points to the fact that the brand adopted the “sex sells” technique to promote their product.
The controversial part about this ad is how it is degrading women and portraying them as objects that serve men.

Airbnb’s Message of acceptance

Airbnb’s #WeAccept ad aired in 2017 is an example of a successful controversial marketing campaign. The ad created a positive response among the audience. In the ad, the brand showcases the ‘message of acceptance.’
The advertisement showcases people from diverse nationalities bonding with one another. The brand then captions, “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, and who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful; the more you accept.”
During the first half of the 2017 Super Bowl, the ad generated 33000 tweets, and most of them were positive. The ad generated an 85% positive response from the audience.

Oreo #ProudParent

oreo ad supporting the LGBTQ community- controversial marketing

Oreo and its parent company Mondelez International were threatened by gay rights opponents for their ad supporting the LGBTQ community. The ad, in collaboration with PFLAG, encourages families to show their pride through hashtag #ProudParent. Oreo released the ad in October 2020, despite knowing the fact that Pride month is June.

This ad showcases how the family supports their daughter, who brings home her girlfriend with hesitation. The brand was called out for pushing the LGBTQ agenda on families.
Also in June 2012 Oreo supported gay rights by launching rainbow-themed cookies and posted a picture on their Facebook page.
Despite the backlash, the image got 195000 likes.

Dove Racist ad

Dove made the same mistake twice and looks like it was intended to create controversy. In October 2017, the brand posted a video on its Facebook page a video that turns black skin women into a white skin woman after using dove lotion.

Dove apologized for the post and removed it from their Facebook page. But Dove made the same mistake when in 2011; their ad showcases an after-product benefit with three women standing in order of dark to lighter skin tones. It showcases how the skin tone lightens after using the product.

Nike #BurnYourNikes

Nike is a brand that always comes up with strong marketing campaigns. In 2018 the brand released an advertisement featuring the American civil rights activist and football quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s face and with the caption “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The controversy that the ad stirred is the fact that Kaepernick, in the year 2016, launched a movement and took a knee during the national anthem before the NFL games to protest against police brutality and racial inequality.

People started claiming that Kaepernick disrespected his flag and country. All of this led to a controversy.
But when Nike featured Kaepernick in their ad, the brand faced a huge backlash from the public. People started burning Nike shoes and tore the Nike tag from their socks and shared the images on social media.
Nike has marketing experts and knew that their ad would face boycotts and public outrage. But still, they went with the ad.
The public burning Nike shoes and using hashtags like #BoycottNike and #BurnYouNikes gave the brand free advertising.

Lush #FlushLush

The cosmetic brand Lush in June 2018, made controversy with their advertisement showcasing Police in a negative light.
The whole scandal was over the fact that it represents the undercover police officers forming a relationship with the women that they were employed to spy on.
The brand started using hashtags #SpyCops and gave their ad campaign the slogan “Police have crossed the line.”
Lush, on their Facebook page, posted a picture of a man’s face split in from the middle with half side as an undercover spy and half as a normal man. To top it all, the brand put the slogan “Paid to lie.”
Lush’s Facebook page got dropped with one start ratings, and people adopted #FlushLush to boycott the brand.
The brand had to apologize for their ad and also defended themselves with the statement that their ad was not an anti-police campaign.


After discussing the whole controversial strategy, the question aries here is that if the strategy works or not?

Well It’s up to you, your audience, your viewers, and your the readers.

You decide what goes well for you and what doesn’t.

The controversial marketing is not only aimed at stirring up disagreements but also to get the audience’s point of view on such issues.

The controversial marketing starts creating discussions about your brand, and marketers don’t mind if it’s negative or positive. The more you discuss it, the more you are promoting the brand, and that’s what the marketers want.

Tell us your views on controversial marketing.

Were you part of any debate and promoted any brand unknowingly?

Vipul Agarwal
My drive comes from my passion for marketing. Moreover, I love to assist others and help them with all my might in their goal fulfillment. My educational journey in the fields of engineering and management has prepared me to understand the nuances of this industry and stay up to date with all the latest advancements through continued learning and development. I believe a healthy mind resides in a healthy body. So I utilize my leisure time in exercising and eating healthy. I indulge in various help books to understand the world we live in, a little better.