Controversial or Offensive PR Stunts – Is it ever a good strategy?

Credit: Huffington Post

Credit: Huffington Post

A Texas sign company, hoping to get some extra attention for its business, has created a truck decal featuring a woman bound and tied. – Amanda Turkel, Huffington Post

This marketing stunt out of a Texas decal company made for some shock and awe, and some extra business. The owner of Hornet Signs, Brad Kobl, told local news stations “I was expecting the reactions that we got, nor was it really anything we certainly condone or anything else. But it was just something…we had to put out there to see who notices it.”

This particular PR stunt is a classic shock stunt. It’s made to gain attention no matter what. It sort of employs the idea of “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask permission.” A PR stunt like this takes me back to the question poised of me two posts ago, “Is all publicity good publicity?”

This takes me back to a sort of mentor of mine and former intern supervisor at Eric Mower and Associates, Steve Bell. He recently wrote on his blog about the psychology of attention, as it relates to publicity. Here’s a quote from that post:

So is any publicity good publicity?

Well, not quite. We’ve all heard that there is no such thing as bad press. But that’s not exactly right. My colleagues and I also looked at how New York Times book reviews affected book sales and found a more nuanced relationship.

Sure enough, positive reviews increased sales. But the effect of negative reviews was more complex. For well-known authors (e.g., Stephen King or John Grisham), negative reviews decreased sales, but for unknown authors, or people releasing their first book, negative reviews actually increased sales. By a whopping 45%.

Our research found that whether negative publicity (or word of mouth) helps or hurts sales is driven by the psychology of attention. Purchase depends not only on whether people like something, but also whether they are triggered to think about it. Consider the last time you picked a restaurant or chose a movie to watch on Saturday night. If something doesn’t come to mind, there’s no way you’re going to pick it.

So it makes sense from this that this decal companies sales would go up after this stunt.

And here is the question poised of me this week: Is there a time/situation when being controversial or even offensive to some is a good PR strategy in your mind? Explain your answer and give a specific example of an organization or brand to support your point.

I think it’s okay to be controversial (when done correctly), I don’t think it’s okay to be offensive. Sadly, I don’t think this is ever 100% feasible.

What do I mean?

Take Starbucks for example. The CEO of the company has done two things in recent memory that has actually made me okay with stepping foot in a Starbucks every now and then (I tend to support local establishments first). Obamacare is incredibly controversial at the moment. However, unlike most big corporations, Starbucks has said that they aren’t cutting jobs and they aren’t cutting hours to make up for the money they’ll put out for insurance. To a lot of people opposed to Obamacare, this seems like an obedience to the government that isn’t warranted.

The CEO of Starbucks was also very vocal about being in favor of legalizing gay marriage. This is controversial for obvious reasons, and to some could be considered incredibly offensive (depending on their stance – hence why you can’t always disassociate controversial and offensive).

Call me liberal (italicized for those who consider this a dirty word), if you will. But if that means I think everyone deserves health coverage, living wages, and the right to marry whomever they want… so be it. And it reflects in my ethical foresight in PR strategy.

Offensive publicity on the other hand has no right being part of a PR strategy. Shock tactics are most certainly looked at with disdain by this PR professional.

What do I define as offensive?

  • Aggressively or passive aggressively attacking an opposing or competing view.
  • Lessening or demeaning an opposing or competing view.

In other words, I think you should market your company as positive to your audience. Not by attacking or lessening those who don’t fit your audience’s script. For example, doesn’t offend me. They market their website and services according to those who would use it. Now if they went out of their way to call non-Christians “heathens” or what have you, then yes, they’ve crossed the line to offensive publicity.

In the case of the decal pictured above? It is highly offensive.

It is a depiction of an aggressive affront to a woman. Manhandling another human being is highly offensive.

The psychology of attention may be a thing but I consider myself a more creative PR professional and I would have crafted a more creative campaign to garner attention. The Texas decal company’s shock tactic was unethical and just plain lazy.


Public Relations: Ethics and Crisis

Disclaimer to my regular blog readers – This is an assignment for school. You can skip it if you wish, however, I encourage you to read my thoughts on ethical public relations practices. You may disagree, agree, or completely not care about what I feel is ethical. Feel free to chime in if I’m way off base 🙂

At this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW – seriously, I need to get to this someday), BBH, a PR agency out of New York City had the idea that they would outfit 13 homeless people with shirts that say “Hi, I’m Melvin. I’m a 4G Hotspot.” The idea was make sure people attending SXSW had enough places where they could connect, and since the demand would be high for this connectivity, this idea was born. Each of these people, who happen to be homeless, were paid $20 an hour and were allowed to keep the suggested donation of  $2 for 15 minutes the agency said could be paid for via PayPal or cash. 


Arguments against this case say that the company exploited these people’s precarious situation when they don’t care about their condition outside of the context of this SXSW stunt. Arguments in favor say that they have brought the issue of homelessness to the attendees of SXSW who would talk with them while using the wireless hotspots. One of the 13 people, Melvin, said this, “That’s a good side of it, too — we get to talk to people. Maybe give them a different perception of what homeless is like.”

So I’m posed with this question:

  • Is it an ethical PR tactic in your opinion?
  • Respond to the general idea that “all press is good press.” Do you agree or disagree.

Here’s the deal, I don’t agree with what they did because I agree that they’ve gone ahead and exploited this situation. It makes them look as if they care, but beyond this one single instance, they clearly don’t. I would have agreed with this situation if, in fact, BBH devoted time or money into battling homelessness. I perused their website (though it is a very nice website, neither here nor there right now) and did a quick Google search to see if there had been any charitable efforts following SXSW and no go. Giving these people preference for this kind of job is nice and all… but it’s not helping to battle the root problem.

BBH could have easily gone to an Austin-based not-for-profit who works with people who need a home and have hired through that effort while simultaneously doing actual good. While the people who worked for BBH got a little reprieve, it’s unlikely that there were any long term benefit to. That’s a problem.

The long-term benefit here is in the hands of BBH because I’m talking about them. I’ve visited their site. BBH has been mentioned in more of the articles written about this situation than Melvin, the man wearing the Hot Spot tee.

So no, I do not think this was an ethical PR tactic. Exploitation is never ethical.

Next topic…

All press is good press.

All press is good press… if you know how to handle it when it’s actually negative press.

Crisis communication plans need to be solid, every member of the team needs to be well acquainted with protocol, and for the love of all that is good… please, please, please, never say “no comment.”

All press is good press in the sense that you have the opportunity to start a real conversation. You have an opportunity to right a wrong. Not dealing with the negative correctly is pretty detrimental…

For example? Last September, Paul Frank hosted… a Dream Catchin’ Pow Wow party. Native American cultural appropriation was en masse at this party and it didn’t particularly paint Native culture in a very good light. For instance, they had three signature cocktails that were labeled, “Rain Dance Refresher,” “Dream Catcher,” and “Neon Teepee.”

Credit: Native Appropriations Blog (Adrienne Keene)

Credit: Native Appropriations Blog (Adrienne Keene)

Here’s the rest of the shit storm that was this Pow Wow themed party:

  • Plastic tomahawks
  • Fake headdresses
  • Glow in the dark war (face) paint
  • Plastic bows and arrows
  • Antlers

What the actual fuck?



Indian Country was enraged. I was enraged. You are not honoring a group of people by deigning to emulate a fictitious caricature of a very real, and very still alive, group of people. Paul Frank was DEAD WRONG for doing this.

Thankfully, the writer of Native Appropriations and Harvard PhD candidate, Adrienne Keene (Cherokee), had the wherewithal to email Paul Frank’s PR company about this. And the backlash that Paul Frank got was enormous enough that the President of Paul Frank reached out to Adrienne in response. They immediately admitted to wrong-doing, scrapped the 1000+ photo album off their Facebook, and here’s the kicker, offered to allow real Native artists to come in and design outfits and accessories with the fashion company.

Here’s the letter from President Elie Dekel of Paul Frank Industries to Adrienne:

Dear Adrienne K, 

My name is Elie Dekel and I am President of Paul Frank Industries LLC. I am writing to see if you would be willing to speak with me regarding the recent Paul Frank event. While we have not yet received your letter [AK note: I only had emailed it to the PR company], we have seen the copy online and would like to address your concerns directly. This is something we take very seriously, and since the event, we have begun to take numerous steps to address this regrettable and unfortunate situation. I’d like to talk with you so I can update you on what we’re doing as well as hear more from you, so we learn from this mistake. If you would be interested in speaking with me, please let me know how best to reach you and when you might be available.


Elie Dekel


Keene and Paul Frank worked in conjunction with the Native boutique store, Beyond Buckskin, to create a line of clothing that was made by Native fashion designers and artists from around the United States and Canada.

I actually already bought a pair of Candace Halcro (Cree/Metis) sunglasses. Aren’t they just dazzling?!

glass2_case_RSWhat did Paul Frank do here that makes this good press?

  1. The addressed the problem head on.
  2. They took the photo album down from their Facebook.
  3. They requested to speak to learn from their mistake.
  4. They made it up by featuring authentic Native designs that aren’t superficially made.

It’s terrible it had to happen this way, but because Paul Frank did the right thing in response, I now own Paul Frank accessories. And I’d encourage you to get some of these sunglasses as well. Halcro/Paul Frank just came out with beaded rimless sunglasses like the one pictured above and I think I just have to have them.

Now if only Victoria’s Secret had done a little more like this… I’d probably set foot back in their stores.

Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2012. Granted, they didn't air this outfit when the show televised... but more could have been done.

Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2012. Granted, they didn’t air this outfit when the show televised… but more could have been done.

So yeah, sorry I couldn’t give a straightforward answer on the all press is good press debate. But it really does depend on how the press is handled. People will mess up, people will get mad… it’s a matter of dealing with the situation at hand.

Now comment below and tell my professor that I need an A 😉