Last week we saw the Internet up in arms over two different ad campaigns from major companies. One was the ill-advised, protest-inspired Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner, which angered people who felt it trivialized political movements like the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter. The second happened when Nivea (who has a history of offending people with their advertising) launched a visual campaign with the message “White is Purity”. Of course, that phrase was instantly criticized for its potentially racial undertones.
I believe these are two excellent examples of what we’ve started referring to as “Outrage Marketing”. Outrage Marketing is when a company taps into the news media’s propensity for running stories that will outrage people, and the public’s tendency to want to be outraged. An Outrage Marketing campaign can reach an exponentially larger audience than a campaign in which the company simply pays for ad space. When people are upset, they leave comments. They share the ad. It gets seen by many more eyes than it would if the content had been safe and inoffensive.
Whether or not you were personally offended by these ads or felt the backlash was overblown is irrelevant. What’s important to remember is that we’re talking about massive companies with enormous advertising budgets and some of the cleverest marketing minds in the business. Yet somehow both ads slipped through the chain of command and into circulation.
I think that’s because Pepsi and Nivea knew their ads would offend people. They were likely developed by teams of people and researched through test audiences and focus groups. Certainly, over the course of this process, someone would have seen the potential for negative reactions and raised their concerns. But the ads ran anyway.
When it comes to this type of guerrilla marketing, it could be argued that no company does it better than the Canadian restaurant chain Earl’s.
Earl’s managed to seemingly insert themselves into the news cycle on nearly half a dozen occasions last year, for three separate decisions the company made regarding restaurant policy. The first involved a difference in dress code standards between male and female staff. The second happened when Earl’s announced they would no longer use Alberta beef, suggesting concerns over quality and ethics. After a weeklong debate online and in the news, the restaurant reversed their decision. Finally, Earl’s made headlines yet again when their downtown Calgary location tested and then revoked a new procedure for tipping servers. Without spending a single advertising dollar, Earl’s made potentially millions of people think about their brand, their menu, and their dining experience.
You may wonder if these stories did more harm than good to the Earl’s name, considering they cast the company in a somewhat negative light. But I’m willing to wager that many people reading this had completely forgotten about one or more of these controversies. If you subscribe to the marketing school of thought that stresses keeping your brand “top of mind” for consumers, Earl’s received the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in exposure for free. The resolutions of all three instances also seemed to carry a message: “We’re listening to our customers and giving them what they want.“
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with manipulating the media in this way. Politicians have been using similar tactics for as long as there has been media to manipulate. The ad-sphere is incredibly competitive and companies are constantly looking for ways to cut through the noise. In fact, you almost have to commend a marketer who executes a shrewd OM campaign against a tight budget. But we as consumers need to do a much better job of noticing when we’re being played.
Anytime we see a major company who should know better make a controversial decision with their advertising or policies and ending up in the news as a result, we should be hyper aware of the chance that a piece of Outrage Marketing bait is being dangled in front of us. The bigger the company and the angrier people get, the more likely it is that we’re witnessing well-placed OM.
The next time you’re offended by a company, your reflex may be to expose them on social media and deter others from supporting them financially. But before you press “Share”, remember that you could be doing exactly what that company wants you to do.