Brands: be cautious with your controversy

Modern conversation rarely allows for nuance. Balance feels boring next to the extreme, so the extreme travels further causing more outrage and division.

This is the story of the last decade, but conversation polarisation has always been present in our culture to some extent. As far back as 1999, academic Cass Sunstein observed that groups with broadly similar beliefs tend to drift towards the views of its most extreme participants. Social media turned it nuclear. 

The world feels at its most toxic, divided and troubled, despite data suggesting the reality is different. It’s far easier and more entertaining to publicly fight an enemy than quietly work together to find a solution. 

This is going to have creative implications for brands throughout the next decade. 

In a volatile conversation, the most vocal brands might not be able to stay quiet about the most divisive issues. Sitting on the fence could upset both sides and picking one may be necessary. That said, just as many people may not care and buy their brand anyway.

The lack of trust in both politicians and advertisers means more brands than ever will be searching their soul for a problem to fix beyond selling better products and services than their competition. The jury is still out on how effective and authentic most will turn out to be. Genuine success stories could be the exception. 

If picking a side is the price of entry to a conversation, ideas that take a stand will become commonplace – and if outrage is everywhere, causing controversy will be an easy sell for as long as the media lap it up. But if more brands are trying to create controversy, what does real controversy start to look like? It could all end in tears.  

The people will decide where the line is. Many brands will feel the wrath of the media when offence and outrage are cynically deployed but upsetting controversial figures may have a different effect.

If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, outrage from a controversial figure may help unite people around an idea and may indicate genuine cultural resonance. 

Authenticity is key though. After Piers Morgan tweeted his outrage at the Vegan Sausage Roll in early 2019, many of Greggs’ competitors proactively tweeted at Piers with their own vegan products in an attempt to create a moment of attention-grabbing outrage. Interestingly, Piers rarely took the bait.  

As we enter a divided decade, there will be a temptation to use controversy more readily in our ideas – but brands and their agencies need to be more conscious of whether their ideas will send us even deeper into a polarisation crisis. 

Perhaps the most authentic ‘purpose’ brands can adopt is trying to use creativity to unite us around our similarities, rather than dividing us by our differences.

Alex Clough is creative strategy director at Splendid Communications

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