Friday July 03, 2015

Controversy Advertising

Boundary-pushing ads are always a big gamble for marketers.

Benny Bell Crop


When Benny Samburg grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan, he had dreams of being the next Irving Berlin.

So in the 1940s, renaming himself Benny Bell, he peddled songs with titles like Ooo La La, Oui Oui and Noses Run In My Family to music publishers, but no one bit.

When he couldn't get a song on the radio, a friend suggested he write racy tunes for another medium: The jukebox market.

Because while the police were raiding record stores for obscene recordings, they left jukeboxes alone.

So Benny took the advice, and started writing suggestive and controversial tunes that became big hits on the jukeboxes in bars and cocktail joints.

Songs like My Grandfather Had A Long One (about his grandfather's nose), I'm Going To Give My Girl A Goose For Thanksgiving, and Everybody Wants My Fanny rang out in popular bars across New York.

Over his lifetime, Benny Bell wrote over 600 songs.

And one of his biggest hits was called Shaving Cream:

Pretty controversial stuff in 1946.

Thirty years later, in 1975, a radio DJ named Dr. Demento found a copy of Shaving Cream in an old record store and started playing it on his show.

It eventually climbed to #30 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Benny Bell Shaving Cream

Benny Bell's "Shaving Cream" ditty finally hits the Billboard charts 30 years after he wrote it. (

Finally, Benny Bell enjoyed the success that had eluded him in the 1940s.

Benny couldn't get his controversial Shaving Cream song on the radio back in 1946, but 1975 was another time and place.

Knowing when to court controversy is a hot topic in the advertising world, too.

It's a risky strategy, and how much advertisers can get away with is constantly changing.

And with the introduction of the Internet and sites like YouTube, it's another time and place for advertisers.

The temptation is greater than ever, because the potential payoff of using controversy advertising promises untold riches to the lucky ones.

But get it wrong, and an advertiser will find itself stepping into a big pile of sh-aving cream….

The use of controversy in advertising has a long history.

Ad historians cite the famous Woodbury's facial soap print ad done in 1911 as the first controversial ad of the 20th century. It showed a man caressing a woman from behind, kissing her neck, with the headline, "A skin you love to touch."

Woodbury Ad

The ad that brought sex to advertising back in 1915. (

It was scandalous, because it was the first time sex had been used as a selling tool in advertising.

In the 1950s, advertising emerged from the war years with a conservative tone, as a well-scrubbed Leave It To Beaver sensibility dominated pop culture.

Leave It To Beaver

That is one squeaky-clean Beaver. (

As I've mentioned before, advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach created a television commercial for incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, who was running against Republican Barry Goldwater.

The ad immediately sparked controversy. It has been called the most effective political attack ad ever done in advertising history.

It was only broadcast once, as Republicans demanded it be taken off the air, outraged that Johnson would even suggest  Goldwater was pro-nuclear war.

The commercial was also cited as the first to become a media event, as the ad's controversy generated news reports in all the major TV, radio and newspaper outlets. "Daisy," as the ad was called, helped give Johnson one of the biggest majorities in American history.

Ten years ago, we did an episode asking, "Have Ads Gone Too Far?"

But that was when a new thing called YouTube was getting off the ground.

The Internet, of course, has changed everything. And because the web is not regulated, advertisers can now get away with more controversy than ever before.

Discount store Kmart was created by Kresge founder, Sebastian Kresge, back in 1962.

Sebastian Kresge

Mr. Kresge himself. (

Once the nation's biggest discount retailer, Kmart has struggled in the last 20 years with competitors like Walmart.

In 2013, Kmart found itself struggling with constant out-of-stock issues, and reports suggest they were losing over 50% of intended purchases due to empty shelves.

So Kmart's advertising agency, called DraftFCB, had to find a marketing solution to an inventory problem.

While analyzing Kmart's business for an answer, they stumbled upon a little-known service that made Kmart's vast online inventory available to in-store shoppers.

It was called "Store-To-Home" – and it promised that if you couldn't find what you're looking for in-store, Kmart would order it for you online and ship it to your home for free.

The retailer aimed this service at a younger segment of the market: Women age 21 to 45. Kmart described these women as proud and outspoken, with an appetite for edgy, boundary-pushing humour.

So with only a small budget, Kmart channelled Benny Bell from the 1940s, and launched this commercial on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube:


Within 24 hours, the ad had gone viral. It was picked up by media outlets across the country.

Within eight days, it had attracted 15 million views on YouTube.

With that success, Kmart moved the ad to select television networks.

But with all the attention, came backlash.

The Today Show asked if Kmart had gone too far.

Offended consumers sent hundreds of messages to Kmart asking that the ad be pulled. Kmart responded politely to each complaint, but kept the commercial on the air.

Next, Kmart released another ad telling shoppers they could save 30 cents per gallon on gas purchases. The ad centred around "Big Gas Discounts," which when said fast, sounded more like…

It didn't take long for the non-profit family-values group, One Million Moms, to demand that Kmart yank the ad, calling it disgusting and offensive. They asked their membership to send Kmart emails and boycott their stores.

But Kmart kept the ads running.

It was an interesting strategy.

The store was historically positioned as a family-friendly retailer. Yet this campaign ran counter to that image.

But the ad agency's goal was to get people talking about Kmart again, and to jump-start Kmart's dusty image.

This is always a risky strategy, because an advertiser has to walk a tightrope of not offending existing customers, while trying to attract new ones.

By the end of 2013, Ship My Pants had accumulated over 30 million online views, ranked #11 on the Top Viral Ads Of All Time List, and inspired over 100 parodies.

But the real test was… did the controversy sell product?

While the advertising agency claimed the campaign led to a monthly sales increase of $1.4 million, Kmart's overall sales fell 2.1% in that quarter.

Some critics suggested the controversial campaign hurt Kmart in the long run, because while it suggested Kmart was getting hipper, shoppers were finding the same old boring store when they walked into it.

And when advertisers demand attention-getting work from their ad agencies, but don't follow through at the store level, the disconnect can create a whole new set of problems.

Usually, controversy advertising is employed by new products and companies, hoping to attract much needed attention in the critical launch period.

So it's always interesting when established brands go that route.

Back in 1992, Kimberly-Clark launched a product called Poise, for women who suffer from light bladder leaks, or LBL for short.

As a marketing challenge, it's a subject nobody wants to talk about, and there are no good euphemisms that make talking about it any easier.

But last year, Poise launched a new product called Poise Microliners, with new "Super Absorbent Material," called SAM.


If you've got Sam in your pants, blame it on the Super Absorbent Material. (

This new SAM innovation was described as a "shockingly thin" liner that redefines the light incontinence category.

According to Kimberly-Clark, one in three North American women, between the age of 30 and 40, suffer from LBL, which is usually brought on by coughing, sneezing, exercising or laughing.

This younger market was unlikely to buy Depends, which is another Kimberly-Clark product, so the company launched SAM with this commercial:

While Poise had a history of talking to women in a light-hearted way, the commercial was polarizing.

Kimberly-Clark said the response was overwhelmingly positive, with a nine-fold increase in sample requests. But while many laughed at the humour, just as many were completely offended.

Like the reaction from One Million Moms, who never overlook a controversy with their two million eyes.

The group called the ad "the most disgusting commercial Kimberly-Clark had ever produced."

Again, it was an interesting strategy. The product is discreet, but the advertising wasn't.

By definition, controversy advertising is meant to trigger debate. It ignites both positive and negative views.

While it gets big attention, it also creates enemies.

For an advertiser, it's always a big gamble.

Kimberly-Clark, despite the blowback, didn't pull the commercial off the air.

Although I noticed there was a new version of the ad on Youtube. One that was edited substantially, and was now missing the key phrase, "I've got Sam in my pants."

But did the controversy pay off?

According to the parent company, the campaign scored a 0.4 share gain, and a 6.7% sales lift – which translates to big money in the $1.4 billion dollar incontinence category.

One reviewer said the ad was ingenious, because it made women laugh.

Creating the need for the product right on the spot.

Then… there is Poo-Pourri.

The commercial was entitled, Girls Don't Poop.

Poo Pourri

Aimed at girls who suffer from "poop anxiety." (

Poo-Pourri is a deodorizing spray that creates a protective film on the surface of toilet bowl water, preventing odours from escaping.

The ad went viral immediately, garnering over 6 million views in a single week.

Creator Suzy Batiz said she was inspired by having to share a bathroom with her husband and two sons. And she knew that many women have "pooping anxiety," with 64% of women saying they were very uncomfortable when their mates knew when they were doing their business.

Reactions to the online commercial were overwhelmingly positive, with the vast majority of viewers loving the humour.

Girls Don't Poop became the third most-viewed viral ad worldwide in 2013, with over 29 million views to date.

Sales increased by 90%, and the Poo-Pourri company expects between $50-60 million in annual sales this year.

Poo Pourri

A little Poo Pourri science for the class. (

Not every controversial commercial is humorous.

Last year, Hyundai ran a commercial that showed a man trying to commit suicide by running a hose from his exhaust pipe into his car.

He fails in his attempt, because the new ix35 Hyundai only emits water vapour, and is harmless.

The reaction to the ad was swift and overwhelmingly negative. People were outraged that the auto manufacturer would use suicide to sell cars.

The ad was created in Europe, and Hyundai North America immediately distanced itself, saying it was shocked and saddened by the inappropriate UK commercial.

Hyundai UK pulled the ad from YouTube later that same day, and issued an apology.

In a subsequent posting, the car company said the video was created without Hyundai's request or approval – which is odd, because Hyundai uses an in-house advertising agency.

It's surprising when a big advertiser can be so tone deaf in its marketing.

And on the Internet, as we all know, videos can never really be completely deleted.

Anti-smoking advertising has always been one of the more creative public service categories.

Recently, Canadian advertising agency BBDO created a video aimed at teens who smoke socially, or only occasionally at parties, to warn them that social smoking can lead to addiction.

The video was called, Social Farter.

The video was a viral sensation, chalking up over 1.7 million YouTube views.

It was a somewhat controversial video. One that would probably have a difficult time getting clearance on conventional television.

The goal of the ad was to start a conversation around the perils of social smoking.

Social media monitoring company Sysmos tracked online conversations before & after the campaign, and found that after only two weeks, conversations had increased 8,600%.

Yet when 16 youth-targeted anti-smoking ads were tested with teens at 6 Ontario high schools, Social Farter came in dead last, with only one in five kids agreeing it was effective.

The study showed that while teens found the ad amusing, they collectively felt the humour undermined the serious message.

It's a tough call on this commercial. The controversial nature of the video got a lot of attention in a cluttered space. And attention is job one.

Plus, off-line conversations are hard to track. The trick is not to let the controversial idea drown out the message.

While the Super Bowl is the biggest night of the year in advertising, it also places the most pressure on advertising agencies.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to be just controversial enough.

But maybe one of the most telling stories on the dangers of controversial commercials had to do with a company called Just For Feet.

Just For Feet

Just For Feet was once one of the fastest growing companies in America - until it tripped. (

Just For Feet was a shoe retailer that Forbes listed as #6 on its list of American's Fastest Growing companies.

It had secured a commercial slot for the third quarter of the Super Bowl, and was very excited.

But when the ad finally ran on game day, mouths all around the country fell open.

Super Bowl viewers called it appallingly insensitive. People started calling Just For Feet - Just For Racists.

The CEO of Just For Feet said he was badgered into running the ad by his ad agency. He said he was flabbergasted by the idea, but the advertising agency assured him it was the way to get attention in the Super Bowl. They said they knew better than the client what would work. That they were the advertising professionals. And that it was the best work they had ever done.

The client said no, the agency said yes. The client resisted, the agency persisted, the client eventually relented.

So after the Super Bowl, Just For Feet did something very unusual. They sued their advertising agency for $10 million.

The lawsuit stated the ad was so offensive, it amounted to professional malpractice.

It was an unprecedented lawsuit. And it sent chills down the back of the advertising industry, because it had the potential to inhibit in an industry that is compensated and awarded for pushing the envelope.

The advertising agency put forward a motion to dismiss the case, but a judge struck it down.

The lawyers for the shoe company countered by saying that when a company hires a professional advertising agency, the agency has to be held accountable for their recommendations. That the standards of the profession had been breached.

The advertising agency's defence was simple - that it couldn't be sued for violating professional standards in a field that has none.

The advertising industry held its breath.

Then, a few months later, Just For Feet filed for bankruptcy, and the suit… disappeared.

The controversy within a controversy was no more.

Someone recently said that there is no shortage of brains in the advertising industry, it's the vertebral column that's missing.

But having backbone in marketing needs to be counter-balanced by a heavy dose of common sense.

Because employing controversy in advertising is a treacherous path.

On the one hand, if done well, it can shower an advertiser with attention and millions of dollars in sales.

On the other, if ham-handed, it can lead to substantial backlash.

Kmart hit the sweet spot between humour and controversy, but failed to move the needle.

'Sam in my pants' risked marketing a discreet product in a non-discreet way, and it paid off.

Poo-Pourri threw caution to the wind, embraced bathroom humour and laughed all the way to the bank.

Whereas Hyundai committed the ultimate sin – by choosing the wrong kind of controversy, with an ad that will forever float around the web.

Then there's the cautionary tale of Just For Feet. Can a client sue its advertising agency for raising too much controversy? Especially when a client has final say on what gets approved.

A company's reputation is a precious thing. But in this fractured media universe, and the wild west of the Internet, the temptation to dance in the jaws of controversy has never been greater.

It always comes down to one question for marketers:

Has their advertising shipped their pants…

…when you're under the influence.