The first rule in advertising? Get their attention.

And for small businesses without a big budget or wide reach, getting noticed is especially tough.

It can be tempting to take a risk: to cut through the mundane competition with something provocative and controversial. Something that demands to be pinned, retweeted and shared.

But it’s a fine line between daring and destructive.

So before they start repulsing the masses, small businesses could learn a thing or two from the mistakes and successes of brands that have tested the limits of what consumers are willing to accept.

We’re not as soft as we used to be

Charities do good work for good causes, we hope.

They just want to raise public awareness. To show us that, with £2 a month, we can bring hope to the lives of those who suffer the most.

But charities aren’t stupid. They know that their slow-motion montages of destitute children backed by sombre musical scores and soft-spoken narrators won’t cut it any more.

We’re desensitised.

We’ve seen hundreds of cartoons showing active ingredients eliminating plaque. And we’ve seen hundreds of dignified charity adverts soberly explaining the horrific circumstances of millions of strangers

Charities know they need to create the kind of reaction that makes you drop your cereal bowl and do something. So we can’t really blame them when they come out with something like this:

(Don’t watch the video if you’re sensitive.)

Despite the Advertising Standards Authority naming it as the most complained about ad of 2008, Barnado’s says that they received an “overwhelmingly positive response” to the campaign, and the advert went on to win a Yellow Pencil award from D&AD.

So what’s the lesson to be learned from adverts like Barnado’s?

You can get away with something harrowing, intense, brutal and upsetting – just so long as you can justify it.

Your business and your products might not be involved with a worrying social issue. But if you’re dealing with customer problems in a direct and relevant way – like a Corsodyl actress spitting out all of her teeth – you can get the attention you need without being called gratuitous.

Big risks can have big rewards

On the other end of the scale, there are some companies that positively relish the offence they cause, with no justification or remorse.

Black Rifle Coffee, a company run by US Army veterans, begins their ad by telling their critics to fuck off:

They shoot guns that strip the clothes from buxom women, fire flamethrowers from the back of a moving buggy, and disregard your opinion while playing their national anthem on an electric guitar.

It’s ludicrous. It’s so excessive that you shouldn’t be able to take it seriously enough to be offended by it.

And it seems to be working for them:

Their more recent videos – including such topics as ‘the pussification of the American male’ – have hundreds of thousands of views. And they’ve generated enough of a following to expand the product range in their online store to include branded baseball caps and clothing.

So what can we learn here?

If you’re speaking to the values of a large enough group of people (especially one that’s supportive of your beliefs and your cause) the minority who complain won’t put a dent in your success.

You might not like what Black Rifle is doing. You might think their moral compass needs a tune-up.

But you have to admit that their approach gets them noticed. And it doesn’t seem to be putting them out of business.

The best intentions can still cause problems

Some ads don’t use grisly images or violent editing to get their message across. They take a tone that’s warm and soft, tugging at your heart-strings to create an emotional connection between their viewers and their brand.

But despite all the fuzzy feel-good, they can still turn people off.

This advert follows a curious young boy as he tries to learn more about the dead dad he’s never known. With every probing question he asks his mother, it looks like the boy and the dad have nothing in common, and the son can’t seem to live up to his father’s ghost.

Disappointed and dejected, feeling inferior and lost, he finally finds the one link that ties him to his ancestor – a common ground that can help him feel some small kinship with the deceased.

As it turns out, they both really like the Filet-O-Fish from McDonald’s.

The makers of this ad were probably coming from a good place: no matter how different we are from each other, we can all come together in our love of comfort food.

But after a touching vignette about a boy who can’t kick a football or get a smile from a girl, the brand logo at the end is a rude slap that cheapens the emotions we’ve just been feeling.

The BBC labelled the ad as offensive, claiming that it “exploits childhood bereavement” – and McDonald’s has since apologised.

What can your business learn from this fast-food mistake?

If you’re going for heart-breaking emotion, make sure your product is really relevant. If you’re going for a big reveal at the end, make sure it lives up to the rest of the story.

And finally – do I need to say this? Don’t mix kids with death.

Being politically correct won’t always save you

Body image is a hot topic in advertising. Just look at the uproar around Protein World’s “Beach Body Ready” adverts, or PETA’s “Save the Whales” billboard.

Companies like Dove and Lane Bryant develop entire campaigns designed to challenge traditional standards of beauty. There are plus-sized models confident in their curves, and a range of different packaging for a single product to show us that “beauty comes in all shapes and sizes”.

And then there’s this Mobile Strike advert.

You can see what they were trying to do.

They could have filled their promotion with protruding hip bones and thigh gaps, showing women who skipped breakfast because they were filming an advert that day. Instead, they “decided to feature ‘real-sized women’ as a nod to their diverse player base”.

They could also have not used scantily clad women at all.

The Advertising Standards Agency decided that the imagery was sexually charged and unrelated to the product, and banned the whole advert.

Had they used models that covered a wide range of appearances, they might not have attracted much attention at all. But the decision to choose this particular cast reeks of political correctness – and it makes the irrelevant sexiness of the advert all the more apparent.

Here’s the lesson:

If you want to sell with sex, don’t pretend you’re flying the flag for challengers of chauvinistic ideals. If you feel the need to show that you’re politically correct, don’t overcompensate.

And if you’re sure that the best way to sell a war game for mobile phones is with girls in bikinis by the pool, try not to go overboard with the G-string bum-shots.

A bad reputation can keep coming back

Plenty of companies have made plenty of regrettable promotions over the years.

Plenty of them have managed to bounce back afterwards. They pull the ad off the air, fire off a stock apology, and go back to the drawing board for the next campaign.

But people don’t always forget so easily:

Earlier this year, Pepsi ran a now-infamous advert featuring Kendall Jenner as she quelled a standoff between protestors and police with the mighty power of a can of fizz:

It’s easy to see the intended vibe here: peace and unity through simple acts of kindness.

It’s also easy to see how people saw this as a belittling of the important issues that spark protests.

As you would expect, Pepsi quickly pulled the advert and apologised. But when the Charlottesville protests happened a few months later, Pepsi got raked through the mud again.

During the weekend of the events in Charlottesville, conversation volume for Pepsi rose 144% – and only 1% of it was positive.

We can argue about how offensive or insensitive Pepsi’s advert was. What we can’t argue about is the fact that their advert had nothing to do with the Charlottesville protests – the ad was created and aired months before the tragedy happened.

Had the adverts and the real-world protests been two years apart, it’s unlikely anyone would have made the connection. Unfortunately for Pepsi, their bad ad was quickly followed by a horrific event that fell under the same category as their ad’s content.

What did we learn today?

If you want a provocative promotion, try to stay away from highly volatile political issues – especially situations that are likely to actually occur in the current climate.

If you have to tackle a contentious issue to flog your wares, don’t make light of violence and oppression with a Pepsi-style product shot.

And finally: if you think you’ve calculated all the risks of a daring and controversial advert, think again: it could still come back and bite you in the can.


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