“The cleverest thing that an advertiser can do is the opposite of what everyone else is doing”. It makes sense, but it’s also likely to lead to the type of controversial advert that everybody loves to hate. So why would you risk standing out from the crowd for all the wrong reasons? Well, advertising is designed to get attention. It needs to catch your eye, and convince you to spend your money on a specific brand or product. And if it’s controversial, it might even get featured on the news or talked about in social circles, which means double the amount of people will see it – ker-ching! Is controversial advertising the right decision, though? Here are some of the most controversial ads, so you can decide for yourself.
Ask anyone, and they will tell you that Rosie the Riveter was an icon of World War Two. They’ll probably explain that she was part of a government campaign to encourage women to join the workplace, and take up the jobs of the men fighting overseas. She wasn’t, though. The poster was actually designed to encourage women to work harder and increase productivity at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company. She is still a brilliant example of an empowering woman, and an advert that reaches its target audience effortlessly, but it’s a stark example of how intent and meaning can change over time.
You might not be familiar with this advert, but you should be! While the design is fairly typical of its time back in 1961, the text is in a world of its own. This was one of the first adverts to use positive religious references in advertising. The picture, showing a non-Jewish American boy eating a rye bread sandwich, aims to engage all religions in a clever and light-hearted way, which led to it being widely talked about. The positive messaging didn’t stop people from questioning if religion should be used in advertising at all, though.
Okay, so this 1970 advert came from my side of the Ocean! The British campaign, created by Cramer Saatchi, was one of the first that flipped cultural norms in an attempt to get a reaction. At the time, it was intended to educate young men to think about pregnancy and take action to prevent it, without being patronizing or moralistic.
So what do you think of this advert? Lynx, who changed their name to Respect for Animals, created this shocking advert in 1983 and ran it throughout the rest of the decade. It is widely created with changing high society’s opinion of fur, and helping to change the British attitude to wearing animal skins. The ad adopts a moralistic, moderately insulting tone, but was cleverly targeted away from the audience, to put pressure on those who encourage others to wear fur. Would it have put you off a fur coat?
This one is pretty recent! Dove launched their real beauty campaign in 2004, after a study found that 75% of women thought that the media set unrealistic beauty standards. The goal was to make beauty a source of confidence, and then to make women feel beautiful. Ambitious, right? The real beauty sketches were a hit, and even the spin-off parodies helped to reinforce Dove’s messages about beauty. The only problem was the women they chose – despite not being “standard” supermodels, Dove were still criticized for choosing slim women with good figures, rather than a true range.
United Colors of Benetton ruffled some feathers with this advert in 2011. Despite building their brand on controversial advertising, it attracted a storm of bad publicity for manipulating images of world leaders including Obama and Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Palestine, and Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Israel. The campaign was designed to contrast the culture of hatred with a strong message about closeness, regardless of faith, culture or motivation. I’m not sure it worked, though…while the image is shocking at first glance, it wasn’t much of a talking point for Benetton.
This advert, from 2013, was the first ever campaign against domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia. It was powerful in its simplicity, especially as such a campaign was completely unexpected in the country. It doesn’t waste any time – there was no soft introduction to DV campaigns! It didn’t take long for Saudi Arabia to pass new laws against domestic violence. That has to be a win.
Widely touted as the most controversial adverts of recent times, these are a great example of how far brands are willing to go to generate conversation and make sales. Do you think brands should keep aiming to shock, though, or should they focus on selling their products, and leave social messages to politicians and charities? Let me know what you think!
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