Controversial ads can help boost a brand

Pepsi and Burger King both created risky ads, but pros say they could profit from the attention

Two major consumer brands recently courted controversy with risky advertising campaigns – Pepsi with its depiction of the lone calorie in its Pepsi Max committing suicide, and Burger King's quest to find “virgin” Whopper eaters in developing countries.

While the Pepsi Max ad only ran in a German publication, it was duplicated online, and some, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, criticized the soft-drink maker for its insensitivity. Pepsi pulled its ad, but Burger King's “Whopper Virgins: The World's Purest Taste Test” campaign continue. It depicts Burger King visiting indigenous people from countries like Thailand, and asking them to taste test the company's Whopper against McDonald's Big Mac. Critics like Eric Holtz-Gimenez, executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, told ABC News the ad is insensitive to the fact that the people in many of the regions it is visiting are too poor to afford its hamburgers.

While both campaigns resulted in some negative attention from consumers, bloggers, and media, PR pros say the companies will also benefit from the attention – good or bad.

Eric Yaverbaum, president and CEO of Ericho Communications, says the press might not be good, but this kind of attention effectively multiplies the company's ad buy and drives consumers to want to go online and watch the video.

“They do this intentionally [knowing] this thing will be YouTubed to death,” Yaverbaum adds.

Pepsi, though, denied it was an intentional stunt. “This in no way, shape, or form was a publicity stunt,” Huw Gilbert, senior manager of communications for PepsiCo International, wrote to PRWeek, in an e-mail. “The illustrations appeared in one issue of one publication in one country. We agree they are totally inappropriate, and they will not run again.”

In terms of cutting through media clutter, the use of the name “Whopper Virgin” was a clever way to garner attention and potentially create an interesting effort, says Patrice Tanaka, co-chair and CCO for CRT/Tanaka.

“In the fast-food wars, there's more tolerance for these kinds of controversial [messages],” Tanaka says. “However, to exploit the undeveloped tastes of the developing world is a cheap shot... It comes to disrespecting other people's cultures.”

Still, Tanaka adds that with so many messages every day, the chances that these “kinds of bad memories will recede” is great because, “Americans are forgiving people if companies are... immediate with their contrition.”

Lisa Novak, EVP and US consumer marketing practice leader at Ruder Finn, also notes the importance of trying to “break through the clutter,” which often means using nontraditional techniques. She, too, cautions that, “It will always be about the product... If good, then it will create a halo and reputation around the brand.”

Burger King declined to comment.

“Ethics have to be considered,” Novak adds. “With a campaign of this nature, you have to do a quick gut check. Pepsi did the right thing and apologized.”

Kevin Grangier, founder and CEO of CarryOn Communications, says if the spike in media response was the primary objective of one of these types of campaigns, then the criticism might be less of a concern.

“While the foundation of PR is to create... positive attitudes... the question becomes, do these short-term initiatives go beyond the initial spike they create, and is it worth it given the long-term goals?” he asks.

Grangier points out that when clothing store French Connection first launched its “FCUK” campaign, which is now plastered on T-shirts, it was trying to reach a certain audience, and it did so successfully, despite a risky effort.

“Given the pretty general concerns about shock and impact strategies, what does it say about the company's values at the end of the day?” he says. “[Brands] want to make sure they've done the right research... watching sales and public opinion.”

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