Controversy’s role within advertising

“People like controversy because that’s what sells.” This quote by Miley Cyrus underscores a disconcerting truth in our society: controversial topics are intentionally created to draw attention. Frequently used by businesses to draw interest in their products, this tactic has proved successful time and time again.

However, due to our society’s recent steps toward becoming more sensitive to issues such as racism and sexism, many classic campaigning strategies no longer appeal to the audience. “Sex sells,” for example, has been widely used as an advertising tactic because of its ability to draw large amounts of interest. Nevertheless, just because a campaign works, doesn’t mean it is ethical to employ.

Even Carl’s Jr., whose cornerstone of marketing was its racy commercials, eventually veered away from its scantily clad models. In an era when sensitivity and political correctness dominate the markets, being branded as a sexist company is detrimental to sales. By listening to the public’s concerns about the objectification of females, Carl’s Jr. reveals that sometimes, controversy for financial success isn’t appropriate, especially if it capitalizes on the discrimination of a specific demographic.

In contrast, Nike’s newest advertisement campaign with Colin Kaepernick is a large success, both fiscally and diplomatically. By choosing to support Colin Kaepernick, the first athlete to kneel during a national anthem to protest police brutality, among other social issues, Nike took a political stand with this advertisement. While this campaign originally generated copious amounts of outrage on the internet, with some people vocally declaring they would boycott the brand while setting their Nike gear on fire, the company has since earned over $6 billion in revenues since the unveiling of the campaign.

While Nike’s stance on this deeply political topic did rile up part of its audience, this controversy is appropriate. First of all, people are not being attacked; at most their beliefs are being challenged, and the advertisement is based around empowerment and doesn’t show anyone, even those of opposing views, in a derogatory light.

Unfortunately for Dolce and Gabbana, this luxury goods company was unable to create an advertisement as well considered and well received as Nike’s. After releasing, on Nov. 20, a series of extremely confusing videos about a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian foods with chopsticks while a male narrator asks if they’re “too big” for her, Dolce and Gabbana was forced to cancel its “Great Show” in China. The simpering nature of the hired model, coupled with the traditional music flowing in the background and the condescending narrator’s voice coalesced into an ingratiating caricature of Chinese heritage.

Personally, the videos didn’t provoke outrage in me immediately. In fact, I watched them multiple times in great confusion. There seemed to be no point. But that was the point. The goal of these meandering, unfocused shorts seemed to be to provoke a public reaction, and therefore, create publicity and discussion about the brand. However, by creating something so culturally insensitive, Dolce and Gabbana completely alienated an entire country, effectively shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to marketing strategies. While this fiasco may not have been intentional, as Dolce and Gabbana said in their apology, companies have a responsibility to consider how advertising campaigns will be received by the general public and should be held accountable for the reaction they receive.

In all these cases, it is easy to say that these issues are overblown or that people are overreacting about trivial matters. However, public companies’ treatment of social issues often set the standard for what seems to be publicly acceptable. By allowing seemingly minuscule amounts of discrimination, it normalizes that mentality and creates a toxic society as a whole.

Controversy, when used right, can be a powerful tool in creating demand for a product. While it is important to consider the reach that a certain type of controversy can cause, it is even more important to consider its impact, especially in today’s global society.

By Nicole Chiang, Opinion editor
Photo Courtesy of Nike