groundbreaking vs. controversy in advertisement
Sara Sargent
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Make Smart Ads: How to Avoid Controversial Marketing

Advertising that stands out from the crowd is difficult to achieve—but it’s essential. Your consumers see hundreds of advertisements on a daily basis. If you’re expecting to break through the ad saturation most consumers endure, you need smarter ads.

What’s your plan for delivering that powerful advertising punch of shock and awe?

There’s a difference between an ad that’s groundbreaking versus one that’s controversial. Controversial advertisements often actively seek to offend a portion of their audience. Groundbreaking advertisements work to stop your audience in their tracks, but with good intentions, not in horror.

Sounds like a fine line to tread, right?

Let’s take a look at two commercials released by the same company. One received acclaim—but the other was heavily criticized for its insensitivity.

Internal Beauty: Groundbreaking Commercials

In 2013, Dove released an ad series titled “Dove Real Beauty Sketches.” In these commercials, women described themselves to an FBI sketch artist, who then revealed the difference between their perception of themselves and their actual selves.

This advertisement received significant praise for its insight. While the goal of the advertisement was to sell Dove products, it pulled double duty via its framework. The ad highlighted the ways in which women are socially encouraged to think about themselves—and the negativity that can build as a result.

That framework of building women up made the advertisement truly , especially when compared to others released by similar beauty-oriented companies.

Black to White: Controversial Commercials

Now, for controversy. In 2017, Dove released a significantly more controversial advertisement.

While originally intended to show a woman morphing from one ethnicity to another to show the diversity of Dove’s audience, this ad quickly took a turn thanks to a .gif that spread like wildfire across Instagram and Facebook. This .gif showed the seconds of the commercial where a black woman transforms into a white woman, and showed off a huge error in judgement on Dove’s part.

Sure, the intent of the commercial wasn’t racist. But that on-screen transformation – or suggestion that black women should morph into white women with certain beauty products – did not, of course, sit well with consumers.

In reaction to the backlash, Dove pulled the advertisement from social media and issued an apology.

The Difference: Tone Matters!

Both of these commercials intended to sell Dove products while emphasizing the unique personal beauty of Dove’s consumer base. But these both teach a good lesson—tone matters. The commercial that received praise challenged perceptions of beauty standards and self-worth. The .gif advertisement, comparatively, used visual rhetoric in such a way that it inadvertently implied the superiority of one race over another.

Intention plays a significant role in the impact an ad will have on its audience. The video commercial wanted to boost consumers’ self-esteem while also selling a product. The .gif commercial wanted to express the functionality of a product (and made a glaring visual error in the process). One’s a smart ad—and the other an avoidable mistake.

So, how do you avoid errors like this?

Controversy can be anticipated but rarely manufactured. Comparatively, groundbreaking commercials require significant forethought and a deliberate, nuanced addressing of the topic at hand.

If you want your ads to stand out from your competitors, be smart about it. Think about the social issues that work throughout your industry. You can choose to address those issues in your ads, be it directly or subtly.

The most important thing, however, is to reveal something new and meaningful to your audience. Just don’t forget to check in with focus groups to make sure your visual message doesn’t conflict with your actual message. 

Image attribution: Feng Yu – stock.adobe.com

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