Controversial Advertising Strategies: Understanding How They May Help or Hurt Your Brand

By Emma Hudson

(Photo from Unsplash)

Have you ever heard the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad press?” On the surface, this statement may seem logical. Controversial advertising is known for making brands more relevant by grabbing attention and garnering conversation. But just how valid is the “bad press” argument?

According to an article released by MDPI , controversial advertising operates by deliberately inducing feelings of surprise by “violating social norms or personal ideals, to draw attention.” Controversy must be used with extreme caution, as it may generate both positive and negative effects in the reception of an advertised brand.

Here’s a closer look into the successes and failures of controversial advertising and questions that should be examined when considering a controversial campaign for your brand.

What does effective controversial advertising look like?

A common misconception about controversial advertising is that its primary goal is to offend its viewers. In reality, controversial advertising doesn’t aim to polarize an audience. When done correctly, it’s an attention-grabbing technique for stating an opinion, and brands use it to stir the conversation about a contentious topic.

An example of effective controversial advertising is found in the 2017 Budweiser advertisement, “Born The Hard Way.”

(Photo from Budweiser: Born The Hard Way)

This commercial tells the story of Budweiser founder Adolphus Busch and his journey to America from Germany with a dream of building his own beer company. The ad artfully portrays the trials a young Busch may have overcome, from fiery ships to unwelcoming American citizens, and eventually meeting with future business partner Eberhard Anheuser.

The advertisement was released during Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from Muslim countries and makes a subtle statement on the topic. The story makes people realize that something so fundamentally American, like Budweiser beer, can have immigrant roots.
It reminds viewers that the United States is founded on immigrants, a message that starts a conversation without condemning pro-travel ban or anti-immigration individuals. The strategic use of controversy helped the commercial reach 21.7 million views within the first 72 hours, with a predominantly positive audience reaction (Atkinson, 2017).

What does ineffective controversial advertising look like?

When approached ineffectively, controversial advertising undermines customer trust in brand values and creates confusion that may lead to brand abandonment (Buchnik and Nowacki, 2018). A prime example of this is Hyundai’s commercial, “Pipe Job,” meant to promote the Hyundai ix35, an eco-friendly fuel cell car with “100% water emissions.”

(Photo from Hyundai: Pipe Job)

This advertisement shows a man running a hose from his car’s tailpipe to its passenger compartment in his closed garage. Taking a few deep breaths and closing his eyes, the man waits to be killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. A few hours later, the garage light comes on, and the man leaves in defeat. “The new 1×35 with 100% water emissions” appears on the screen, which makes it impossible for the man to take his own life. Unsurprisingly, the commercial was pulled after airing for only 24 hours, receiving backlash for mocking suicide attempt survivors (Herper, 2013).

Questions to ask before using controversial advertising

1. What are your goals?

The first question you want to ask before pursuing a controversial topic through advertising is, “what are your goals?” If the reason that your marketing team wants to execute a controversy is to go viral, you need to think again. Controversial advertisements should have logical reasoning and meaning behind them to achieve their desired effect.

This question reigns relevant to the “Pipe Job” commercial, as the motives of the advertisement were unclear. Sure, the company wanted to promote that their new car has 100% water emissions, but couldn’t they accomplish this through a less triggering method? More likely than not, the brand used the controversial advertising strategy merely to go viral, which ended in outright disaster.

2. Are the goals relevant to your brand values?

To elicit a positive response, you must consider if your goals align with your brand values. If the messages perceived do not reflect your brand’s values, it may come off as disingenuous, which will damage consumer trust. Additionally, if the values presented through the advertisement are misaligned, your audience will likely not align with those principles either. The disconnect between audience values and campaign messaging can lead to brand abandonment.

The Budweiser commercial does a great job relating its brand values to the commercial at hand. Budweiser claims the title of “America’s beer,” so the idea of immigrants achieving the “American dream” aligns directly with the brand’s image.

3. What are the potential consequences or misconceptions?

A great way to determine the reception of your advertisement is to conduct focus groups. This will allow you to receive insight into how audiences may react to your commercial before it is published and cannot be changed. Once your commercial is live, there’s no turning back.

It may also be beneficial to consider some of the common causes of negative reception in controversial advertising. Such controversies can be triggered by:

  • Human figures presented in a way that implies or maintains negative stereotyping of specific social groups (women, men, children, or elderly people)
  • Information whose accuracy is clearly doubtful (misleading advertising).
  • Negative associations of a religious, racial, or ethnic nature.
  • Content that insensitively utilizes trauma or violence (drastic scenes, violence, cruelty, death, rape, etc.)

(Buchnik and Nowacki, 2018)

Key Takeaways

In a current culture obsessed with controversy, it’s easy to create a campaign that draws attention from the masses. While the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad press,” it is vital that your team thoroughly strategizes for positive public perception. With the right goals, consideration of brand values, and proper reflection on potential consequences or misconceptions, you’re more likely to receive the desired response from your audience.


Atkinson, Claire. (2018). “Budweiser’s Super Bowl Ad Was the Most-Watched Online.” New York Post, 

Herper, Matthew. (2013). “Hyundai Apologizes for Car Ad Depicting Attempted Suicide.” Forbes, 

Bachnik, K., & Nowacki, R. (2018). How to build consumer trust: Socially responsible or controversial advertising. Sustainability, 10(7), 2173. doi: