Edgy ads are a staple of advertising, attempting to break through the communication clutter and jolt the viewer. As Tom Altstiel and Jean Grow point out in Advertising Creative, edgy ads risk offending the general audience to appeal to the target audience, deliberately driving “a wedge” between the audiences. Altstiel and Grow warn about going too far, which two recent campaigns have done.
Protein World. UK-based supplement company Protein World launched a display advertising campaign in the London subway system asking “Are You Beach Body Ready?” (Note: linked article contains photos of protest signage with blunt language.) A gorgeous, toned blonde in a yellow bikini dominates the design. Thematically similar “get ready for summer” ads have been standard issue for diet products, fitness clubs and plastic surgeons for decades; however, this ad struck a nerve, triggering a social media backlash punctuated by poster defacing and public protests. Global news media seized on the controversy.
Protein World struck a defiant tone on Twitter, using the hashtag #getagrip and retweeting supportive posts from British TV personality Katie Hopkins who called protestors “feminazis,” “chubsters,” and “fat.” After the company declared the ad would remain, it was pulled when the Advertising Standards Authority announced an investigation to determine if the campaign “breaks harm or offense rules or is socially irresponsible.”
Bud Light. As part of its “Up for Whatever” marketing campaign, Bud Light shipped bottles with labels featuring the tagline: “The Perfect Beer for Removing ‘No’ from Your Vocabulary for the Night.”
As seen with Protein World’s campaign, digital protests arose, saying the tagline encouraged rape culture and flew in the face of the “No Means No” campaign to stem sexual assaults on college campuses. Also in parallel, major media covered the controversy. However, Anheuser-Busch deviated from Protein World by being contrite instead of defiant, issuing a public apology and terminating production of the offending labels.
Many asked, “Wasn’t anyone paying attention before printing the labels?” The Wall Street Journal reports that the tagline passed through five levels of review including ad agency BBDO, multiple corporate departments at parent company AB InBev, and the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
In the end… will the backlash hurt Protein World and Bud Light? Protein World recorded a sales jump amid the news coverage. Bud Light saw its “buzz” score drop, clouding its summer sales season to be kicked off by a “Whatever, USA” event on Catalina Island, California. Revenue and regulation will be the ultimate determinants, with bad PR known to affect both negatively.