The whole point of advertising is to get noticed. If your ads don’t get noticed, then no one gets your message, so what’s the point? But how do you get noticed? One surefire way is to be controversial. The thing is, if you court controversy, you must be prepared to deal with the consequences. Let’s look at two examples of small businesses that ran controversial ads, one on purpose and one by mistake, and what happened as a result.
“If they were dry, no one would notice them.”
Pro Shots is a gun store and firing range near our hometown of Winston-Salem. A while ago they ran a series of billboards that attracted a lot of attention, both locally and nationally, because they seemed to insult anti-gun advocates. Here are two examples:
The others were just as provocative. The billboards attracted so much attention and created so much controversy that the Winston-Salem Journal ran a long story about them. In the story, the owners of the store (who came up with the ideas for the billboards themselves), said they didn’t go looking for controversy, they were just trying to be tongue-in-cheek. But one of the owners also made it clear that the intent was to get people’s attention. “If [the billboards] were dry, no one would notice them,” she said.
Notice they did. According to the article, “the billboards have been controversial but also effective.” The owner credited the billboards for being one of the reasons the range was expanded to give more room for gun sales and said gun and safety classes offered at the range are more popular than ever. The owner also said some customers had asked for bumper sticker versions of the ads.
We can take Pro Shots owners at their word that they didn’t mean to offend people. But the fact that they ran a series of these boards indicates that, despite their protestations, they enjoyed the reaction they were getting, and they were prepared for it. In fact, they may have counted on it. And it worked – it helped them grow their business by attracting the kind of customers who not only weren’t offended, but probably delighted in the fact that other people were offended.
“Our billboard communicated something we did not intend.”
Then you have the case of Spicer Greene Jewelers in Asheville, who ran this billboard:
The store owners (who, like the Pro Shots folks, came up with the idea themselves) thought it was a cute idea. Some other folks didn’t, seeing the billboard as trying to wring humor and sales from violence against women. There was a big backlash, and the billboard ultimately caused such a stir that it ended up being a story on CNN. In that story, the owners explained that “our billboard communicated something we did not intend” and was soon going to replaced. The owner also apologized on social media and announced that the store would donate 10% of its sales for one week to a local domestic violence shelter.
Clearly, they did not anticipate and were not prepared for such a negative reaction. One could argue that they should have been, but it’s important to remember that these were not advertising professionals – they were jewelry store owners who had what they thought was a fun idea and just ran with it.
So, what’s the moral? There are two.
First, it’s fine to be provocative and controversial if it fits your brand. Pro Shots sells guns, a product that is, by its very nature, divisive. They know that and played off that fact in developing and running their billboards. They were ready for (in fact, may have wanted) the backlash and used it to their advantage. Spicer Greene Jewelers, on the other hand, is trying to sell wedding rings, engagement rings, earrings and so on to everyone. They can’t afford to alienate part of their audience, so their response was an immediate apology and contrition.
Second, it’s not always the best idea to develop your own advertising. An outside perspective can often result in better and/or safer ideas. If Spicer Greene Jewelers had an agency or even an outside marketing consultant, it’s likely that billboard would never have gotten past the idea stage. Yes, marketing professionals do make mistakes and sometimes create campaigns that are controversial, but it’s generally because that’s the strategy. No agency would ever suggest an ad that could cause an uproar for a business like a jewelry store that relies on a broad customer base and sells such a benign product.