A number of recent stunts by big brands like Pepsi's “suicide” ads and Burger King's “Whopper Virgins” campaign, have been the target of criticism by some consumers (see News Analysis). While brands need to break out of their proverbial boxes in terms of messaging, companies should remain cognizant that at day's end, they're still service providers, not stand-up comedians.
Edgy, humorous stunts for consumer brands should, at best, be an interesting slant on a key trait that consumers already associate with a product, rather than a totally unrelated and potentially offensive issue. Dr Pepper's “Chinese Democracy” campaign from Ketchum, for example, initially went well, capturing support from a specific demographic, as well as Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose. And Burger King's “Subservient Chicken” initiative several years ago also did well, while Pepsi's 2008 Super Bowl spot featuring deaf-community humor from its own staffers won support from The National Association of the Deaf.
No matter what, someone, somewhere could find something wrong with a company's efforts. Yet when creating such attention-provoking campaigns, brands need to be vigilant in research. PR pros, who are often at the table for those decisions, should offer counsel as to whether or not a short-term boom in media hits will be worth any lingering long-term reputation issues. They should consider the level of controversy a brand can handle, and if the effort courts a small segment of consumers who might appreciate that kind of humor or stunt over a larger potential audience.
Controversial efforts are still Tweeted, texted, and blogged about long after they have expired, so brands must carefully consider the impact and how the effort fits into a broad strategy. Overall, consumer brands don't need to be known for their sense of humor; they're generally better off letting the quality of their products speak for them.