Is outrage a legitimate marketing strategy?

Mark Ralphs

17 September 2018

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We live in the age of outrage, an age where the echo chamber of social media will quickly turn a poorly judged comment into a social media backlash. Nowhere is this more evident than in Europe’s increasingly populist politics, where the likes of the UK’s former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, know only too well that one man’s outrage is another’s dog whistle.

But does outrage have a place in marketing?

Stirring up controversy can be an effective play; mobilising loyal customers and critics, getting brands talked about in mass media, or ‘inserting them into popular culture’ as the ad industry might put it.

In a World Cup year, sports brands compete hard to be noticed. Paddy Power, known for its irreverence and (sometimes inappropriate) publicity stunts, caused controversy when it spray-painted the Cross of Saint George onto a Russian polar bear.

According to YouGov BrandIndex, Paddy Power’s ad awareness score (have respondents seen or heard an ad for a brand in the past two weeks) rose by 8% as a result of the stunt, the largest rise among any betting brand YouGov tracks.

And Paddy Power got away with it. Why? It was all a stunt. The cross had been painted using CGI and the ad featured not a wild Russian bear, but a captive Canadian one. What’s more, Paddy Power made a significant donation to NGO Polar Bears International to fund a research project into Russian polar bears.

What had been a negative story, albeit one that generated huge awareness and earned media, was just those cheeky chappies at Paddy Power taking part in some harmless leg pulling.

As Cardi B, who had taken to social media to angrily voice her displeasure, wrote when she shared a YouTube video explaining the stunt, “Paddy Power I’m gonna kill ya!!! So the whole time Paddy Power teamed up with Polar Bears International a organization to protect the pretty polar bears, all to help bring awareness to this cause!!!”
Paddy Power had tapped into our propensity for outrage, and then made us feel a little silly when we found out the truth.

However, sometimes outrage is justified. Here we should draw a distinction between brands causing outrage as a result of taking a stand or having an opinion that reflects their values, which not everyone agrees with. And outrage generated by brands acting inappropriately, either deliberately or by putting their foot in it.

In April this year Puma ran an event called House of Hustle. Invites were sent in the form of ‘burner’ phones and the event was staged in a grimy space with blacked out windows and dirty mattresses on the floor or, as many felt, a crack house. Because, as Dazed magazine reported, “nothing says ‘buy some trainers like addiction, misery and squalor.”
Recently Nike launched a campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who knelt during the national anthem in protest at racial injustice. Predictably, having already called Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” last year, Trump has weighed in, “I think it’s a terrible message that are sending.” And Twitter was full of posts from those condemning the move and burning their Nikes.

Of course, Nike understand that endorsing Kaepernick will cause controversy and also generate huge support and brand value. According to YouGov BrandIndex, Nike’s attention score, (have respondents heard anything about a brand) increased by 19% in the 24 hours after the launch, and word of mouth score (are respondents talking about a brand) increased by 8%.

In an age where many brands feel struggle to stand out from the crowd, I condemn Puma’s crass misjudgement and salute Nike bravery. Nike’s campaign feels genuine and relevant. Exactly what you’d expect from a brand with a long history of championing black athletes. From a brand that encourages you to Just Do It.