10 mins

Agency lifeDigital

Do brands need a controversy checklist?

Date 05.10.2018

Creating a campaign that grabs peoples’ attention is pretty much what we’re all trying to do, but sometimes it can create a buzz for the wrong reasons. When that reason is that you tried to latch onto important social or political issues for monetary gain, people will call you out for it almost immediately.

We’ve put together a checklist to avoid headlines for the wrong reasons and avoid damaging your brand long term.

Be bold, but don’t be unnecessarily risky.

Use our controversy checklist:

  1. What is your objective? Does it align with a need to take a stance?
  2. Who are you alienating? Make sure it’s not the people you want to attract.
  3. Pick on someone your own size. Going head-to-head with a smaller brand can seem like bullying.
  4. Test, test, and test again. Find out what works for your audience.
  5. Is the campaign in line with your brand values? If it’s not authentic, it won’t work.

That’s the snapshot for you, but read on if you want more details on each step in the checklist:

The controversy checklist

1. What is your objective?

There are many reasons why brands may want to push the boundaries or weigh in on topical issues such as raising awareness, humanising the brand, or attempting to enforce change. However, if the sole reason is for profit then chances are you shouldn’t do it. Campaigns with the wrong intentions are more transparent than you think.

A good example of raising awareness of a controversial topic is Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ‘Just do it’ campaign, highlighting the importance of standing up (or kneeling down) for what you believe in, no matter the consequences.

Whilst critics and consumers remain split of the impact of the message, the brand are ‘proud’ of the record-breaking engagement the campaign has received and have also noted a 61% sales uplift. Without doubt, this potentially controversial campaign was a success.

2. Who are you alienating?

Controversy often comes with two sides, so it’s important to remember that it’s almost impossible for a campaign with a stance to be a success with everyone. Nike delivered their campaign in confidence, knowing that it would alienate a proportion of their consumer base.

Though, when you know it’s a portion of your audience that you’re willing to lose (because they share different core values to your brand), it’s worth it. Only deliver a campaign if your brand is willing to risk losing customers for the greater good.

3. Pick on someone your own size.

Sometimes controversy means targeting an individual or organisation, but this should only be the case if that person or brand is more powerful than yourself. eConsultancy refers to this as ‘punching up’ and if you don’t do this it could be considered bullying. Then your message may be taken in a completely different way. No one routes for Goliath.

4. Test, test and test.

Have you tested the campaign on an independent group? Content creators are not viable test audiences as they can be blinded by ‘the idea’ or may only be looking at the campaign through one lense. Until you feel confident that enough people have reviewed the campaign to check that the message could not be misconstrued, don’t put it out.

Certain subject matters will be more sensitive to one person than another and therefore a stringent review process is needed to prevent you coming off badly when focusing on sensitive topics.

5. Is it in line with your brand values?

Sometimes brands purposely go out looking for controversy, wanting the shock factor to generate press and attention. As a result, a campaign can appear to be ‘off-brand’.

Established brands are built on values and a consistent identity – you don’t want loyal customers thinking that your brand has been hijacked by some disgruntled employee because it feels too out of character.

If it’s a subject matter that’s important to your brand or aligns with your brands values, consumers are going to be much more receptive to your message.

It doesn’t seem like every brand or agency is following such a checklist for controversial topics, though… Here’s a few #marketingfails we’ve seen over the years.

Brands who misplaced their controversy checklist


The most obvious example that comes to mind and is still yet to be overtaken by another fail of the same scale is Pepsi’s campaign. In it, Kendell Jenner famously attempted to diffuse a protest with a can of Pepsi. Because that’s all it takes to solve serious issues, right?

London Dungeons

This one was brought to my attention recently when Emma Leech spoke at MarketEd Live. I couldn’t believe that it even existed. This popular tourist attraction published a series of posts on social media to coincide with Valentine’s Day and it’s safe to say that there was some backlash at their incredibly misogynistic angle.


The fast food chain launched a TV campaign which was centred around a teenage boy who had lost his father and a tenuous link to a Fillet o’ Fish meal saving the day. The campaign was slammed for ‘exploiting bereavement to sell sandwiches’, which is an amazing phrase and sums the campaign up nicely.

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