Controversial Advertising: A Risk Worth Taking?


Alex DaltonCopywriter at Mediaworks

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Risky or not – controversial advertising can pay significant dividends if done right. Of course, this type of advertising won’t, inevitably, appeal to all audiences, but – if done right – will get people talking about your business. The question remains though – is there such a thing as bad publicity?

Article 3 Minutes
Controversial Advertising: A Risk Worth Taking?

A successful advertising campaign gets the audience engaging with the brand, the company and the advertisement. Controversy is one way to guarantee a discussion. However, it’s subjective to the person viewing it; an advert can be interpreted in many ways, and what one person might find amusing, another could find grossly offensive. The trick is to be clever with your message and imagery, rather than offensive, especially when 35% of Americans admitted they avoid purchasing from brands with distasteful advertising campaigns.
SEAT dealer, Vindis, take a look at how Volkswagen, a company known for using controversy in their campaign, take advantage of current affairs and potentially bad news, and how they’ve worked.

Controversy and humor

Poking fun at current affairs is something Volkswagen have a reputation for. Throughout their VW Polo campaigns, they’ve continued to approach all advertising with the moto ‘small but tough’.

The elephant campaign

In 2014, after an image went viral of an elephant straddling a Volkswagen Polo, assumedly using the vehicle as a scratching post, the brand capitalized on the image using it as part of their campaign suggesting that the Polo comes with ‘Elephant Impact Protection as Standard’ – the campaign was amusing to the audience, whilst also relatable and current as the image was ‘real’.

Elephant damages VW Polo in South Africa

Whilst this could have been potential bad news about an elephant crushing a VW Polo, the brand saw it as an opportunity to utilize the image in their favor, tactfully making the most of its ‘small but tough’ slogan.

As with most advertising campaigns now, the internet played a major role in the success of the Polo elephant campaign. Had it not been for the power of social media, it’s likely that VW wouldn’t have seen the image and so the campaign would never have existed. Following the rise of digital media and social media apps, advertisers and brands can use ‘viral marketing’ as a tool to spread information almost immediately.
VW cleverly used the same simple slogan but applied it to more than one situation, allowing each campaign to have a common theme with a fresh approach.

The cops campaign

Another example that saw VW capitalizing the ‘small but tough’ slogan was the 2003 ‘Cops’ advert. Showing a dozen police officers taking cover behind the VW Polo whilst in a gun battle, the brand cleverly got their message across to the audience – ‘small but tough. Polo.’

VW messaging: Police officers hiding behind a VW Polo during a gun battle


The supermini campaign

By using a model’s best feature to its full advantage in their advertising campaigns, VW showcase why their product is better than the rest. One of their campaigns capitalized on the size of the brand’s supermini. With the tag line ‘one benefit of the new Polo is that you can park it anywhere’, the advertisement shows a VW Polo parked on top of the billboard. Suggesting you literally can park it anywhere.

Billboard ad showing a VW Polo parked on top, hinting that you can park the car anywhere


Is controversial advertising the right approach?

Using controversial advertising is a risk – and one that might not pay off.

However, if it does, the gains can be extremely worth it. If you chose to take the risk, it’s a safe option to avoid anything to do with racism, sexuality, religion and politics as these topics can often spark very heated and angry discussions.

The best way to approach your advertising campaigns is to keep up with viral and current trends. Capitalizing with reactive marketing is a great way to drive engagement towards your brand and be ideal for creating shock adverts that catch the viewer’s attention.

Alex Dalton

Alexandra Dalton is a copywriter at Mediaworks since September 2016. After graduating in a degree in Media, Communications and Cultural Studies from Newcastle University in 2016, Alexandra began her career at Mediaworks as a Digital Marketing Executive for six months, before becoming a Copywriter where she now uses her creative streak to produce unique, quality content for a range of clients from a variety of industries.


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