“I Don’t Care What You Say About Me, Just Spell My Name Right”

By Freddie Haydn-Slater

This isn’t a jab at Starbucks baristas, but a quote from P.T. Barnum. The controversial entrepreneur, circus king and strategic publicist whose questionable techniques left a lasting impression on the world of marketing. While we wouldn’t suggest his methods, the above quote offers an interesting view on the concept of “bad” publicity.

In today’s world, one needn’t look too far for examples of communications gone wrong. Many agencies have departments tasked with crisis communications, offering strategic support to clients in difficult times. However, some risk averse brands practice covert and controversial communications methods, which can generate mixed results.

Crisis Communications: One example that springs to mind is the 2010 BP Oil Spill which saw 4.9 million barrels of oil leak onto the Gulf Coast. Countless species of marine and coastal wildlife were put at risk and natural ecology along the entire Gulf Coast was threatened by these incomprehensible levels of crude oil, not to mention the huge detrimental effect this had on tourism in the area.

BP utilized a variety of tactics in order to salvage what was left of their reputation following the spill. However, their crisis management tactics left much to be desired as CEO Tony Hayward offered a collection of poorly chosen sentiments following the spill, such as “What the hell did we do to deserve this”, and “I’d like my life back.”

Crisis management for Big Oil may not be the most desired job, but we can certainly learn from this example. The first step is admitting there’s a problem. The next priority is to swiftly address the issue. While exact strategies will vary from client to client, constructing a message that is both sincere and aligned with the brand can help avoid a lot of suffering down the line.

Social Media Backfires: Social media is plagued by examples of controversial marketing. One recent instance of this was when the NYPD invited New Yorkers to share photos with cops on social media. What followed was a slew of unflattering images of policemen making arrests and fighting with citizens. While some may argue that this was a PR disaster, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton responded “Send us your photos, good or bad. I welcome the extra attention”. This response highlights how the added exposure resulting from controversy was embraced by the police department.

As seen above, the public doesn’t always cooperate when asked for their input. Another example of this was when the UK’s National Environmental Research Council put the naming of their polar research ship to a public vote. Soon enough, ‘Boaty McBoatface’ was the runaway winner with 124,109 votes. Unfortunately the NERC did not conform to pier pressure and the vessel was eventually named RRS Sir David Attenborough. While, the NERC weren’t thrilled with the voting results, we’re confident they didn’t mind the global media attention.

Deliberate Controversy: Party game pioneers, Cards Against Humanity are no strangers to controversial marketing tactics. With their unique style, this notorious company has managed to make a satirical card game into a household name. The key to CAH’s success can be attributed to their playful brand messaging and sense of humor.

In 2014, Cards Against Humanity sent 30,000 people a box of poop on Black Friday. While at first glance, this sounds utterly disgusting, it was the result of an ingenious PR stunt. CAH’s idea was to remove their products from the site to sell “Bullshit”. Clever social commentary on the vacuous consumer ‘holiday’ that is Black Friday? Or shameless way of literally selling bullshit to their customers? Either way, this is one controversial example that show how CAH are the vanguards of modern-day media manipulation.

Another more recent example of controversial marketing comes from Paisano’s Italian restaurant in Albuquerque, whose ill-advised billboard recently read “Black Olives Matter,” resulting in a huge amount of understandable outrage. While this distasteful tactic has brought a lot of negative attention to the restuarant, in a Facebook post, they remarked that they “can’t count the number of customer’s orders who’ve included adding Black Olives to every dish” so the added media attention certainly hasn’t hurt the business.

As Oscar Wilde eloquently stated, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” While certain brands like Johnson & Johnson and Toyota may disagree that there’s no such thing as bad press, there are effective ways to embrace controversy to boost the relationship between brand and consumer.

While we probably shouldn’t imitate P.T. Barnum’s questionable methods, perhaps there is still some truth in Chicago’s tagline: “If you can’t be famous, be infamous.”