BrewDog, the self-proclaimed punk brewer, posted milder benefits this week after reuniting on the wrong side of an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling.
The offending artwork was a promotion that offered consumers the chance to win a “solid 24-karat gold” can via two tweets and a Facebook post. The cans turned out to be gold-plated and not solid gold, causing the ire of those who won them. The ASA upheld 25 complaints and a chastised BrewDog ate a humble pie, blaming ‘poor communication between its marketing and social media teams’.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Back when BrewDog was a scrappy young pup on a budget, creating noise by offensively was an integral part of its marketing toolkit.
The arguments that have occurred over the years are too many – and perhaps too tedious – to list, but memorable moments include BrewDog calling the ASA “bastards” for demanding that word be removed from its website in 2013. At the time, the regulator’s invitation to BrewDog for an Advertising Practices Committee (APC) training course seemed about as likely to be accepted. que… a brand offering solid cans of gold.
Then, after backtracking on a previous claim by founder James Watt, who once said he prefers to “set fire” for its money than investing in traditional advertising, a billboard fell foul of the watchdog.
“Sober as a motherfu” was the tagline for the 2019 poster promoting its non-alcoholic beer, Punk AF, channeling what appears to be BrewDog’s favorite expletive. The inevitable happened and the work, created by Uncommon Creative Studio, was banned.
Yet no piece of BrewDog’s marketing has generated as many complaints and conversations as John Lewis’ latest insurance spot. With a boy in a dress wreaking havoc as he passionately dances around the house, more than 300 people complained about the advertisement to the ASA. With gender identity currently one of the hottest issues in the culture war, publicity has set social media on fire.
Unlike BrewDog, John Lewis has left its mark on the nation’s consciousness by evoking heat through its marketing output, rather than anger, and few would suggest the retailer has decided to fire any complaints. But given the current climate, its marketers and ad agency, Adam & Eve/DDB, will have been aware they would be raising eyebrows.
Maybe they decided the risk was worth it for the transition. Surely there must be many more people who now know that John Lewis does home insurance than before. The retailer himself plays it with a straight bat, saying the ad “simply shows a young boy carried away by his dramatic performance.”
So, in this age of outrage, can deliberately provoking ad complaints work as a marketing strategy?
Chief Strategy Officer, Publicis.Poke
We live in a new era of activism. More people have more to say about more things than they have for some time. We hear views that would have been shouted before, voices that would have been silenced.
At the same time, advertising is becoming less and less relevant. If what we do gets enough attention to garner complaints, we’ve solved the relevance problem. Conviction is key: say something with substance and accept the challenge. Make sure your position is defensible. Involve communities that have a stake in the issue, but remember that none of us can speak for all of us on the things that matter most.
As a strategy, the work of making people feel enough to give you feedback cannot be reversed – outrage is always better than apathy.
Co-Executive Creative Director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
I’m not sure deliberately provoking complaints is a strategy. How long before the approach feels jaded, contrived, or even cynical?
I think it’s much more interesting to think about accepting that your work may attract complaints because it’s work that goes beyond the status quo to find powerful and fresh stories; it’s work that’s not afraid to have an opinion; it’s a job that’s willing to piss off a few people in order to connect with many more.
The work you never complain about is the harmless work you never notice. And that seems an even poorer strategy.
Chief of Special Operations, Lucky Generals
Leading the debate through creativity is a refined craft. Similarly, tossing a sharp mind at events can lighten the load on consumers in a society creaking under the weight of the world.
But deliberately provoking ad complaints is madness, and potentially costly, because a single valid complaint upheld by the ASA can derail a campaign.
It’s hard to push through and not get attention (something brand managers should be aware of), but there’s growing evidence that the level of complaint isn’t what it’s meant to be anymore. was before.
Everything a brand does needs to be rooted in a smarter, broader strategy. If you go out just to upset people, you might end up looking like the kid at school who set the trash cans on fire.
Chief Strategy Officer, Engine Creative
I’m not sure any of these ads were designed to deliberately induce complaints. John Lewis’ ad was a remix of “Tiny dancer” and BrewDog launched a golden can promotion which turned out to be less golden than promised.
While it’s true that the latest John Lewis ad drew more complaints than any other this year, I doubt that was ever the intention. Instead, I suspect the intention was to make the brand culturally resonant.
It means giving the brand the ability to join or generate conversations that go beyond advertising, and I would argue that this latest work from John Lewis has done just that.
Whether it’s the annual Christmas blockbuster or this latest commercial, John Lewis has a knack for joining a larger cultural conversation. Choosing to use a swinging boy in his mother’s clothes has meant the brand has joined a public conversation (whether they like it or not).
Trade Marketing Director EMEA, Pinterest
I love seeing brands push the boundaries of creativity in marketing, creating new ways to engage consumers. But I strongly believe that consumers should only have content that they trust in their feeds. With misleading content, you leave all credibility at the door. Loss of consumer trust erodes brand loyalty and ultimately affects the bottom line.
Kyle Harman Turner
Executive Creative Director and Co-Founder, Other
I once had three of the top five most criticized ads of the year. Was there a debate about whether that was a bad thing or a badge of honor?
Over the years I’ve continued to do commercials with people being kidnapped, whipped, or dancing on the pole before the turn, to name a few.
In the short term, I think it can work as a strategy to quickly grab attention and get a tone of voice. Like Greggs’ “Baby Jesus” sausage roll. But I wouldn’t build a whole long-term brand strategy just around baiting complaints.
For me complaints are not something to be feared, but often just an acknowledgment that we are for some and not for others. Its good. Many ads are so desperate to talk to everyone that they end up talking to no one.
Founder, Borkowski PR
Controversy as a tool is a double-edged sword. Without strategic thinking about where it will take you, it rarely pays off. Malcolm McLaren’s misdeeds and mayhem inspired me to become a publicist. However, Malcolm’s 20th century modus operandi would struggle to navigate this complex age. Controversy as a tactic involves a combination of foresight and intuition – you need to know where the maelstrom will throw you and, perhaps more importantly, how to survive cruel uncertainty.
In the case of the recent John Lewis commercial (which was atrocious as an idea), I’m not sure that this foresight of how to shape the controversy existed. That said, it’s unlikely to hurt its bottom line: unless a brand, product or person is “canceled” due to complaints, massive surges of attention and awareness will rarely have an impact. negative on sales.
The million dollar question is whether deliberately provoking ad complaints can be an effective marketing strategy and benefit the reputation of the subject of the ad in the long run. I argue that this can only be so with careful strategic positioning.
In the pre-internet era, we all consumed the same hardware and then weighed in on it. But we are no longer in the same boat, and the truth cannot reach everyone. So where it was once possible to become the lightning rod of outrage in a way that conveyed pioneering fearlessness, youthful rebellion, or unwavering principles, we are now fragmented in so many ways that, just as it is futile to trying to please everyone, it is now virtually impossible to create outrage with substance.
Moreover, the dust is kicked up by prideful, two-dimensional agencies that will do anything for the money but are blind to cultural references outside of their own ghetto. If you spend too much time in a bubble, you don’t know how people outside think, and it’s nearly impossible to anticipate all possible short- and long-term reactions to a campaign. To make matters worse, the crowd never reads beyond the title.
So those who claim to understand the rules of engagement are freely pouring oil on the fire. Sometimes this brings short-term benefits, but the inevitable cost is the control of the cultural narrative. So when the rig burns, and you forgot to refill the squirt gun, you’re drunk; especially when the narrative is driven by the majority floundering in misunderstanding the idea that outraged them in the first place. In these cases, it pays to have a cool head to clean up the mess or prevent bad things from getting really well done.