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When does ‘edgy’ and 'controversial' marketing go too far?

How to avoid the issues associated with using risque content in adverts, PR and social campaigns

It takes a hell of a lot to shock me. A career spent marketing cigarette, alcohol and gambling brands twinned with rhino-thick skin honed in the corridors of the British public school system and a lifetime of atheism mean my boundaries for what is deemed ‘bad taste’ or ‘controversial’ are more elastic than most.

But not infinite — as I found out recently when I was sent a series of ads to review for a Marketing / Beat article.

In April 2022, a small pop up food retailer called The Otley Burger Company decided, somehow, to use an image of Madeleine McCann in an organic social campaign to sell its burgers. They might be a small outfit without legal counsel or an experienced marketing director, but fucking hell… that level of abhorrent poor taste is surely prosecution worthy?

Having see that disgusting and unforgivable effort, the rest of the campaigns on the list look positively vanilla by comparison. They were all rubbish and most were pretty tasteless, but then that would be the check list for a significant percentage of supposedly edgy campaigns these days, wouldn’t it? However some really had overstepped the mark.

I mean, Pretty Little Thing is a big enough operation to know better than to tell girls to “Channel that teen dream realness with barely-there micro mini skirts” using a picture of an underage model. This example shows how easily the line can be crossed — in this instance by 5 inches of hem and a couple of years the wrong side of 18.

Where was the sense check? How did this pass multiple sign off levels? Or were they just blind to what is effectively suggestive paedophilia?

In April this year, I wrote this piece for Marketing Week entitled ‘The Question of Risk vs. Reward for Brands on Social’ which looked at how brands had struggled to correctly gauge the boundaries between what was acceptable noise making and unacceptably nefarious behaviour. There were so many examples of brands getting it wrong the article wrote itself, showing how hard it is to overlay objective marketing decision making by brands over the subjective personal tastes of the general public.

In conclusion, I surmised:- “If brands remain obsessed with capturing that ever-elusive social honey, they need to be prepared to get stung once in a while”. The exact same quandary exists in advertising — and always will. Those who get it wrong have to pay the price, but with the ASA remaining as toothless as ever (ad bans and fines coming long after campaigns have run their course) it remains with the court of public opinion to vilify those brands who overstep — and to punish them commercially by removing their custom.

Scandal and shock tactics have always been a tried and tested means of generating brand fame — especially on social. But there is a line, and anyone with half a brain and an understanding of brand worth can see that line a long way off.

Those in charge of marketing for organisations that repeatedly stray onto the wrong side of the taste tracks either need to unilaterally educate themselves or embed much, much more robust sign off procedures.

Oh, and the owner of The Otley Burger Company should have made some sincere apologies, closed his business and locked himself in a dark room for all eternity to think about what an absolute weapon he is.

Harry Lang is a CMO, integrated marketing consultant, and author of ‘Brands, Bandwagons & Bullshit’, a guidebook for those starting their career in marketing, advertising, media and PR. You can contact him at @MrHarryLang or connect with him on LinkedIn.

You can find a back catalogue of Harry's articles about brand, marketing and society at large on his website or on his Medium page


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