Controversy can be an advertising technique with high-risk or high-reward, it all depends on whether the advert is a success or not. Part of the risk involved with using controversy is being caught in cancel culture. 

Cancel culture is an aspect of social media that has become a prominent part of society today. In the modern landscape the audience is no longer passive but has an active role. This means that the audience is no longer silent when there is something wrong with a brand or celebrity, rather they hold them accountable. Here is why companies need to be concerned with cancel culture when advertising today. 

The prevalence of cancel culture 

Cancel culture is the act of members of society coming together to effectively boycott a person or organisation due to an act that they committed that goes against the views of said society. A person or organisation can even be cancelled for something they said or posted years ago. They are still held accountable regardless of time. 

When the world is facing times of political tension, such as the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, for a brand to remain silent will be noticed. During that time the best move is for a brand to use their voice to fight against bigotry as silence is viewed as a way of siding with those who have committed harmful acts.

Kofi believes that politicians get away with more than other industries. He went further by stating “Politics is the worse and we have seen this in this report 6 months after BLM”  

As for Jeannine she had agreed with Kofi’s statement and continued to add more to this by saying “the professions, the military, government related jobs, and healthcare of all kinds come immediately to mind. In general if you make decisions about individuals or policy, the less said the better as in certain organisations and roles one must make unbiased decisions and also be seen to be unbiased. Making a controversial statement can be similar to painting a target on your back for backlash, in some cases.”

Mientjie states that “I think this is true, especially in the case of political, entertainment industries and groups of people who strive to make the world a better place.”

We are now aware of what makes a successful advert when using controversy and what to avoid. Here are some more advantages and disadvantages of using controversy. 

Advantages and disadvantages of controversial advertising

Pros:Cons:
You can use a shock factor to gain support for your brand.High risk that what you say will be offensive to some members of the public. 
Has the ability to generate a buzz because it could become newsworthy and gain higher sales.If it is something specific, like Starbucks anti-christmas cups, it can drive away a portion of your clients. 
Can use self-deprecating humour to appear more human to the audience.It can cross a line and have an emotional impact on the audience.
Cancel culture is prevalent in society, meaning that you can get cancelled for making the wrong statement.  

Kofi gives some advice for brands who are looking at making controversial statements online. It is best to avoid making controversy if you feel unsure or are not known for making controversial statements. He believes that it is better to “focus on what your mission and values are only.”

Jeannine has different advice. She believes that using controversy can be entertaining but you must also be aware of what you are doing. She says that “confronting a person or organisation online can be very helpful and also fun. I believe in the power of confrontation and conflict to clarify matters and bring the truth to light. If we all dance around each other all the time, then nobody ever gets anywhere. But it is important to watch the tone, to understand your place, and the other organisation’s place in society, and remember that the long term goal is to lead somewhere.”

Mientjie believes that when using controversy it is best to be cautious and to have plans in place in case of crisis. She says that “anticipate what the possible consequences are and have a crisis communication plan in place that will cover solutions for the various scenarios that can come out of the arguments.” 

Should companies use controversy

As using controversy has high-risk or high-reward, the question remains, should companies use controversy to gain clout?

Kofi states that “I do think we have to worry about the big boys now trying to put fact checkers up etc. They are using cancel culture for their own benefit. I personally am worried about too much censorship happening, and whether we are now getting freedom of speech nullified.”

Jeannie has a different opinion as she states that “I do not think organisations should be performatively controversial.  I think that would be harmful to the organisation and also to the people in the ecosystem in which it works. More divisiveness for the sake of divisiveness is not the idea I think. A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still, as they used to say. I do think organisations should lead in the direction of the world they want to see and do business in. It is important to remember that a business is a creation of the State, and in that way serves its community.”

Mientjie believes that if you don’t have a strong enough argument it is not worth it. She further states that “Unless you really know what you are doing and have strong arguments to support your controversial statement – don’t do it.”

Using controversy in branding should not just be seen as a strategy to build the brand’s image. It should be viewed as a way to show the public that your brand is not oblivious to everything that is wrong in the world and that it is an ally not another obstacle. 

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