Examples Of Controversial Ads & Marketing In 2024

Updated: October 8th, 2022

What Is Controversial Marketing?

Controversial marketing may be occurring when a company takes a controversial stance to generate a debate and discussion, subsequently causing a buzz around the brand.

Controversial marketing is a high-risk marketing idea - some brands may want to avoid it. However, controversial marketing campaigns have the power to break through the noise and drive tons of brand attention.

This post looks at:

  • how to create controversial marketing campaigns that convert
  • the pros and cons of controversial marketing, and
  • the best practices when doing such.

Let's jump straight in!


Brand Awareness

Controversial Marketing Key Takeaways

  • Engages customers in discussions and builds brand awareness
  • Evoking emotions is what causes the audience to remember your brand
  • Controversial topics will evoke both positive and negative emotions
  • A poorly executed marketing campaign could break your brand reputation

How Controversial Marketing Works

The ideology involves a company speaking up about a controversial issue. The company’s statement sparks interest in the wide population, and the brand name spreads faster than typical news could spread.

The controversial conversation enables the brand to build a greater brand audience while creating an opportunity to improve their business.

However, you need to consider that a controversial topic will draw your audience along two sides. There are those who support your ideology, while others oppose it. Therefore, the marketing tactic can end up damaging the brand reputation, hence the reason some brands considered it a high risk.

Before deciding which issues to speak out on, companies and business leaders should ask the following three questions:

  1. Does the issue align with the company’s mission and values?
  2. Can the company influence the issue meaningfully?
  3. Will majorities of your employees, customers, and community agree with the company’s opinion?

That way, you can decide which issues to speak out on, when to speak, and even reflect on the issues that may result beforehand.

Pros and Cons Of Controversial Marketing

Engaging your audience through a controversial conversation has its pros and cons. Here are some pointers to consider before engaging in controversial marketing.

Pros Of Controversial Marketing?

  • It generates word of mouth marketing: Controversial marketing gets people talking and sharing comments about your brand
  • Controversial topics that resonate with your audience encourage them to take some action.
  • If well-executed, controversial marketing campaigns boost sales

Cons of Controversial Marketing

  • Controversial content, especially those that touch on the status quo, offend certain audiences
  • A poorly executed marketing campaign could break your brand reputation
  • Controversial marketing can detract audience attention from the product or service being promoted

Real-World Examples Of Controversial Marketing

Here are some great examples of controversial marketing for your inspiration.

1. Protein World Managed to Rake £1 Million Profit against £250,000 Marketing Budget.

Protein World is a leading sports nutrition company. The company came to the limelight in 2015 when they put up a controversial ad campaign tagged “Are you beach-body ready?”

The Advertisement sparked a huge outrage with some women criticizing it to be a body-shaming campaign. As a result, a hashtag #eachbodysready filled the social media as the users defaced the ad.

Despite the widespread backlash, the campaign boosted sales and saw Protein World reporting over £1 million profit against £250,000 marketing budget.

The advert was well planned and featured the company’s objectives. Therefore, the company achieved its target in profits and brand awareness.

2. How Nike Achieved Sales increase Thanks To The 30th Anniversary Controversial Campaign

When Nike launched the “Just do It” ad campaign to celebrate their 30th anniversary, they featured a former NFL player who was dismissed for protesting against the inequality of minorities in the US.

Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during the games, and he was deemed as anti-American. His actions caught the attention of many people resulting in the famous “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”.


Nike applied the bold statement to the “Just Do It” marketing campaign, an action that took their ads to a whole new level.

According to Nike, the sales went up around 10% and the brand was trending on social media.

3. Gillette’s Controversial Ad Released To Counter Rising Competition

Gillette decided to unveil the controversial “we believe” ad focused on the trending topic of toxic masculinity and encourage men to be the best they can, by tackling everyday sexism and the institutionalized machismo latent in a “boys will be boys” mindset.

Rather than proclaim the all-American, white male model archetype, the ad offered up a more diverse, multi-dimensional image of the modern man.

The change in direction from the previous “the best a man can get” campaign was applauded by many, but also prompted a wide range of people, including some of the target audience who felt disgruntled with the less-than-flattering portrait of the 21st American man.

Similarly, the campaign came under fire from the feminist groups who questioned the razor brands' commitment to the #MeToo cause.

Regardless of the criticism, the brand attained the goal of growing brand awareness among the target audience.

4. How Lush Saw Sales Increase Through A Controversial Ad

Lush is a Lush Retail Ltd. is a British cosmetics retailer, which is headquartered in Poole, Dorset, United Kingdom.

The company is known for its strong position against anti-establishment thinking and social activism. The image has earned the brand a league of liberal followers.

However, the brand's 2018 campaign dubbed #Spycops brought the company to public attention.

The Ad allegedly brought the illegal behavior by undercover police to the public’s attention.

The cosmetic brand found itself under scrutiny on social media, with outraged users calling for the boycott of the brand's products. In its response, the brand stated that the ad was not focusing on the regular police, but instead aimed at the undercover unit that infiltrated homes and created false relationships with the political activists.

Despite the negative comments, lush was not impacted negatively by the campaign. According to the BrandWatch report, lush realized a sharp increase in sales.

How To Setup A Successful Controversial Marketing Campaign

  • Choose the right topic
  • Do not be too self-serving
  • Share the campaign on social media
  • Do not exploit contentious issues like politics and religion
  • Study campaign results of your competitors
  • Be factual and not over sensational
  • Inspire a respectful discussion
  • Keep your team onboard
  • Put up a crisis management plan

To run a successful controversial marketing campaign, engage the right stakeholders and focus on the core marketing objective.

meet the author
Pat Walls

I'm Pat Walls and I created Starter Story - a website dedicated to helping people start businesses. We interview entrepreneurs from around the world about how they started and grew their businesses.