The art of pulling off a controversial PR stunt: some brands do it right, others do it wrong

The art of pulling off a controversial PR stunt: some brands do it right, others do it wrong

PR stunts can go bad...and lead to unwanted media attention.

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, that courting controversy heightens brand awareness and contributes ‘edge.’ But, as plenty of firms have learned to their sorrow, public scandals and misjudged marketing bombs can be seriously costly.

In the age of Reddit and WikiLeaks, you’d think it would be pretty hard to shock modern consumers. However, public grievances in many territories have actually increased in the last decade.

The potential for uproar certainly exists, but how can this be translated into brand awareness and direct sales? Let’s address some examples, both successful and not so successful.

The risks and rewards of chasing controversy

The Good

In 1996, fast-food chain Taco Bell pulled an infamous April Fool’s Day prank, taking out a full-page advertisement in seven leading U.S. news sources announcing its purchase of the Liberty Bell (which they renamed the ‘Taco Liberty Bell.’) As a result, hundreds of furious protesters converged on Taco Bell’s headquarters.

PainePR (the company who executed the stunt) described the fiasco as “the most successful project [it had] been involved with." With a cost of $300,000, the campaign generated an estimated $25 million in free publicity, with a sales increase exceeding $1 million for the first two days in April.

The Not-So-Good

Across the pond, Irish sports book Paddy Power has cultivated an irreverent reputation for its unique marketing initiatives. The bookmaker’s massively successful campaigns have ranged from paying football players to flash branded underwear to posing a Grim Reaper behind former Manchester United manager, David Moyes.

However, while Paddy Power has seen huge success on the back of its imaginative marketing, it has recently come under fire for ‘overstepping the mark.’

The brand was forced to pull a campaign in March, which would have promoted a book on the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. This ill-fated initiative earned Paddy Power over 5,000 complaints and knocked its revenue in the first quarter of 2014 to the point that company directors had to swallow a 2% pay cut.

Other instances of controversy gone-wrong include Sisley’s ‘Fashion Junkie’ campaign, which showed two models appearing to ‘snort’ a white strappy top and Renault’s pledge not to use the ‘N-word’ for ten days (they meant ‘no.’) Neither of these stunts produced stellar sales figures and earned both brands grievous blows to their reputations.

When it comes to controversial PR, what sets these campaigns apart? What is the difference between a risqué smash and a fumbled faux pas?

The formula for furore

In an interview for Director Magazine, ‘experiential marketer’ Helen Trevorrow offered some insight into executing controversial PR. Trevorrow names three ingredients for success:

1. Image: Firstly, companies need to be sure that chasing controversy is appropriate for their image.

"Stunts are best done on well-known brands,” says Trevorrow. “Careful consideration needs to go into whether the stunt conveys or encapsulates the brand's key messages. Stunts for irreverent brands tend to work well, and they're good to launch a service or product."

Taco Bell, FHM and Paddy Power all represent so-called ‘vice industries’ and have learned to roll with the punches: from governments, the public and the press. This was not the case with Renault or Sisley, and their clumsy attempts to be ‘edgy’ failed spectacularly.

2. Demographic: Brands must be confident that their customers will be receptive to controversial stunts.

Paddy Power’s mischievous image and emphasis on sport and popular culture is well-suited to its primary demographic of working-class males. However, the Pistorius prop bet turned attention away from the sporting and ‘celeb’ sectors and towards a subject that was, arguably, too raw and serious to be funny.

3. Planning. Finally, Trevorrow emphasises the effort that must be invested into controversial PR to ensure dividends.

“The stunt is a tactic; the sexy end of PR. It's like the tip of the iceberg—the bit that sticks out,” she says. “What you don't see is the masses of work that goes on behind the scenes. The stunt has to come at the end of a period of strategic thinking and consultation."

Contentious PR campaigns must be planned and developed with all appropriate considerations in mind: return on investment, the cost of fall-out and the long-term consequences for a brand’s reputation.

Only when these components are united will brands be able to do PR the wrong way, the right way.

Sam Miranda is a content strategist for a network of gaming websites. He also writes about business, marketing and general entertainment for a range of online publications. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo: Interview via Shutterstock

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