Shocking Ad Campaigns Offer Lessons For The Best Marketing Tactics

Advertisements. When watching your favorite show, they’re the bane of your existence, making you wait just a few moments longer for that dramatic reveal (OMG! Who’s the father of Desiree’s baby? Not Joe Bob. Oh, please don’t let it be Joe Bob…). When watching one of those yawn-inducing Super Bowls—you know, the kind where your team’s losing by four touchdowns—the advertisements are the only thing keeping you from drinking yourself into a stupor. Sometimes they are funny and entertaining, sometimes they are heartfelt tearjerkers, and sometimes they are so stupid just watching them lowers your IQ by a few points.


There’s one kind of advertisement, though, that takes the cake for us: the controversial ad campaign. Often racy, typically offensive, sometimes dubious in their claims, and always fascinating to see how the public reacts, controversial ads add that little bit of spice to the generally bland world of advertising.

Because we think you might enjoy seeing these as much as we do—we’ve pulled together some of our favorites for you. Oh, and future advertisers of the world, read on and take notes.

  1. NJOY 2014 Super Bowl Ad: Honestly, this ad’s perfectly fine. It’s the stupidity of the general public and their response that makes this one special. Here’s what it was: NJOY ran with this slogan: “Friends don’t let friends smoke.” Then they showed such a concerned friend offering a smoker an NJOY King e-cig to replace the cigarette he’s about to light. That was about it. However, many in the public, especially those involved with anti-smoking organizations, took umbrage. They thought—despite mountains of evidence to the contrary—that there was something underhanded in using an anti-smoking angle to sell e-cigs.
  1. Hyundai Suicide Ad: Yes, you read that right. An ad that used suicide to sell cars. And not just used suicide, but made light of it for comedic effect. It went like this: depressed man sits in his car, in his garage, with the garage door closed. He fires up his car and we know he wants to end his life, and in most circumstances, his chosen method would do the job. However, Hyundai’s ix35 produces only water emissions, and our sad man waits and waits, still sad and still alive. Ha ha! Clever! At least, so thought Hyundai’s advertisers. The public? Not so much. The ad was pulled right away amid a predictable furor.
  1. Dolce & Gabbana Gang Rape Ad: Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse than suicide, your favorite high fashion nihilists over at D&G came up with this gem. What is it? Oh, just four muscular dudes in various state of dress (or undress) surround a scantily clad woman. What’s so bad about that? Well, this woman happens to be on her back. And, you know, one particularly menacing dude hovers over her body, pinning her arms to the ground, while the other three dudes watch with suggestive expressions on their faces. Believe or not, the general public in Italy and Spain (when the ad first ran) didn’t care for the ad or its stylized depiction of a sexual horror. The ad was canned not long after.
  1. Humans for Animals Dead Baby Ad: This list gets more and more cheerful as we go. In this masterpiece—put together by animal rights organization Human for Animals—we have an ironic reversal that, in theory, offers a powerful commentary on human brutality toward animals. Simply: there’s a seal perched on a stretch of icy land. Lead pipe in its mouth, it stands over the dead and bloodied body of a human infant. There actually appears to be brain matter mixed with blood on the snow beside the infant’s body. The ad copy: “Don’t treat others the way you don’t want to be treated.” The point is well taken. How would we feel if some invasive species came along and bludgeoned our children to death in the same way pipeline workers have been known to do to baby seals? However, there’s just something about pictures of dead babies that doesn’t sit so well with the general public. The ad failed and so too did Humans for Animals. They could have used a few tips before releasing this piece.

There you have it. Four of our favorite controversial ad campaigns. They made us scratch our heads with wonder, laugh at the advertisers’ own ignorance, get all creeped out, and cry a little bit inside.

So, What Do They Have In Common?

If you are a marketing professional who wants to learn from these incredible, controversial ad campaigns, the first question you should be asking yourself is “What do all the best advertisements have in common?” The answer, at least in this case, is simple. These ads all shocked their viewer. While it may not lend itself to great press for your company, it will lead to press. And, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad press. If you want an audience to remember your ad, shock them. Depending on your industry and your brand identity, you may choose to shock people in a more pleasant way than the methods mentioned above. Like perhaps debuting a new famous character for business. However, the number one thing to take away from these shocking ad campaigns is that they caught peoples’ attention and got them talking. Word-of-mouth is free advertising for you. So if you want your ad campaign to be remembered – make it shocking.

Image from—says-e-cig-brand

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