Brands Use Chaos for Massive Attention

More firms aren’t shy to step into controversy, and results show it still doesn’t work

Robbie Mukai
Dec 30, 2019 · 5 min read

2020 will open with no small share of brands stepping into a high pile of controversy.

Just recently, Peloton released this thirty-second commercial for at-home exercise bikes. In it, a woman just got an exercise bike from her husband. She records his progress over the year. She’s attractive, fit, and by the end of the commercial, she looks exactly the same. That’s it.

Yet the internet was was outraged either something along the lines that the company was mansplaining to women how they should look. I don’t think that was the case. Their commercial amounts to just being really stupid and ineffective then sexist. Other cases are less excusable.

Folks will have heard about the Zwartepiet blackface controversy that has gone on for years in the Netherlands. For decades now, St. Nicolas elf helpers have been covered in blackface, and often exhibited the behavior of dope. That has since widely changed, and you won't see any of that in Amsterdam around Christmas.

Yet just as that has chang happened, Gucci — for some reason — decided to go with this incredibly stupid idea for a scarf.

(Left) Gucci (right) CC image of Zwartepiet

For reasons that will never be known, the idea to produce this unusually scarf somehow when over the heads of a lot of product designers. For their part, Gucci later saw this error and issued an apology.

The statement reads: “We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected and at the forefront of every decision we make.”

It is entirely possible to lend the designers, production team, and layout editors, the benefit of the doubt. Maybe none of them knew of the Zwarte piet controversy. However, when we also look at Burberry designer Riccardo Tisci debut the infamous “noose neck hoodie,” we have to wonder if companies care at all about the negative attention.


Did it work?

But no matter what lever your company is at, you are always trying to seek out and find new customers. Even huge companies, like the one I work for, are always obsessed with finding those people. It doesn’t matter the size of your company, because people will always outgrow your product, so you have to replace them.

All companies need to gain attention to convince new buyers to come over and try their products. It seems to me that either there is some loose oversight from designer to production, or the company intentionally stepping into the controversy to bring attention and new buyers.

But where both Burberry and Gucci go wrong here is double fold. First, they are going to be attracting the wrong customers. Nobody wants their brand to be involved with the unseemly and controversial parts of the world — they just want to sell XYZ.

The second aspect is they are turning away their existing client base or at least giving them to doubt some of the previous (good) assumptions their customers had towards their brand.

Previous incidents like with United show that it negative press can be hard to get over. Particularly over social media, negative word of mouth can have many long term effects on the brand:

  • Disseminate more messages
  • Disseminate to more people
  • For a longer period
  • Add more reactions
  • Instigates more belief

After an elderly man was beaten up and dragged off a United Airlines flight, sales suffered, and still hasn’t recovered much.


What to take away from this?

This is a very surprising conclusion especially for me. I have worked in the fashion industry for many years now, and there is hypersensitivity in all manners of our brand image. Fashion companies know that 43% of their customers between 18–34-year-old (US) say they prefer brands that share their morals and values. As a result, overly skinny models are long since a thing of the past and environmental sustainability is something that we try to incorporate at all levels of the production process.

TLDR; keep it positive

All of these cases point out a critical factor that goes beyond positivity as the only ingredient. Content needs to inspire a sense of awe and amazement in the viewer.

One of the most important factors because when people are in awe, there is a mental shift into mobilizing and taking action. Think about if the ad were sad and depressing. People are not moved to action quite as much.

So taken together, ads should be

  • Positive
  • Helpful and interesting
  • Novel and leave the viewer amazed

Divisive and controversy can be recognized for its ability to boost short term brand awareness. It comes with the downside, that when you divide the potential pool of customers that you want to recruit as a customer, you are ultimately dividing your longterm growth potential.

Robbie Mukai

Written by

Social media manager: likes talking nerdy about building effective ad copy + business thought + social marketing strategy.

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