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.