Protesters at the Women's March
Marketing Content Strategy

Courting Controversy: Determining Your Marketing Ethics When Approaching Provocative Topics

8 Minute Read

Think back to the beginning of your marketing career: did you ever have to make a hard decision about approaching a provocative subject that made you examine your marketing ethics? An old but classic example is PETA’s 2004 campaign, “The Holocaust on Your Plate.” The campaign consisted of large print advertisements that juxtaposed photos of animals living in horrendous factory-farm conditions with gruesome images of Nazi concentration camps during WWII. The slogan of the campaign read, “To animals, all people are Nazis.”

PETA received negative backlash from the community, as the Holocaust is a subject that most people would never consider using on print advertisements to make a point. PETA was forced to terminate the campaign by the Anti-Defamation League and remove all related imagery. Although short-lived, “The Holocaust on Your Plate” was covered by CNN, the Guardian, Time, and others.

PETA Holocaust on your plate campaign

The question you’re probably asking yourself is, “Who signed off on this idea in the first place?” The marketing team at PETA was likely aware that their campaign was going to be received negatively by some audience segments, but they moved forward with it regardless as it was an opportunity for them to illuminate the world about horrible factory-farm conditions—and it did. PETA defended their efforts from the start. Lisa Lange, PETA’s vice president of communications at the time, stood beside their campaign, telling CNN that it was appropriate because, “Nazi concentration camps were modeled after slaughterhouses.” Do you think that their plan backfired, or did they spark the right kind of outrage?

A Marketer’s Dilemma

Imagine that you are the CMO at a large pharmaceutical company that manufactures a popular brand of birth control pill called YourChoice. A colleague approaches you with a “revolutionary idea” to use President Trump’s controversial health care bill to create a content campaign. The campaign will emphasize your company’s stance against Trump’s bill by defending a woman’s right to accessible contraception. The campaign will feature testimonials of women that use YourChoice and show how your company stands in solidarity with all birth control pill users and advocates. As the marketing lead of your company, would you risk the brand’s reputation by taking part in the polarizing political landscape, or do you keep your company out of the conversation entirely? Of course, your brand will be viewed in a positive light by all YourChoice users and advocates, but you risk backlash from pro-TrumpCare audience segments and those who don’t believe in the pill. Your brand manufactures hundreds of drugs other than YourChoice, and you could be putting the company’s bottom line at risk. What do you do?

It’s hard to talk or write about sensitive subjects. When it comes to any historically taboo topic like birth control, many people prefer to brush all related discussions under the rug. As marketers and storytellers, we don’t always have that option. We are tasked with creating compelling content that sets us apart from competitors while appealing to our audience’s deeper emotions like fear, disbelief, and hope through change. At the same time, we want to avoid coming off as offensive, while also reducing negative backlash. There’s a chance that a company like yours may intersect with sensitive, controversial topics. What are your personal marketing ethics? Would you take a risk like PETA did with your own content? What should you consider before making this decision? How do you create content that won’t offend or spark outrage among your intended audience? Or is the goal to spark just enough outrage to inspire audience members to start a discussion, and get involved with your cause?

When you’re handed the opportunity to create content surrounding the YourChoice birth control pill, you are being given the chance to bring an important issue into the spotlight that might not normally receive the amount or kind of attention that it should be getting. Timeliness and the changing political landscape preempted this campaign in particular, but sometimes trending topics and memes are repurposed to bring a controversial topic into light. Remember “The Dress” from 2015? A photograph of the dress first appeared on Reddit, and viewers couldn’t agree whether the dress was black and blue or white and gold in color. The Salvation Army in South Africa used the meme’s popularity to start a conversation about violence against women, creating advertisements featuring images of a bruised and battered woman lying on her side wearing the dress featured in the meme. The text reads, “Why is it so hard to see black and blue? The only illusion is if you think it was her choice.” The text continues, “One in six women are victims of abuse. Stop abuse against women.”

Salvation Army domestic violence campaign

Some storytellers believe that sensitive topics are discussed in ways that are meant to manipulate an audience with overly emotional content that may be perceived as inappropriate or “crossing the line.” In PETA’s case, a tragic historical event was used in a way that brought a seemingly unrelated issue into the spotlight to raise awareness about a separate cause. Although this will certainly get audiences talking about your campaign, it’s not necessarily the best route to take if your goal is to reduce negative backlash.

If your ethical code goes against what may be best for the “greater good” of the company (in this case, using YourChoice to start a discussion and sell your product to a particular audience segment), you’ll need to find different ways to communicate sensitive topics that will still influence people to make the desired changes in their lives. According to an article from Forbes, “Brands are always looking for ways to create a splash and sometimes controversy is the best way to do that.” Finding the medium between creative, compelling content strategy that elicits emotional responses and avoiding outrage is difficult, but there are a few steps you can take to streamline your creative process.

Define Your Audience

The first step in any content creation process should be defining your audience. What kind of people do you expect to view your content? Is it primarily millennials, generation X, or baby boomers? Is it members of certain religious or ethnic group? In the YourChoice example, it’s a particular gender and political party that you’ll likely be targeting.

Ask yourself what excites, scares, and inspires your intended audience. By appealing to the strongest of your audience’s emotions, you are more likely to elicit a desired reaction. In the case of YourChoice, your content will likely be geared towards women between the ages of 18 and 40 that advocate for the right to use contraceptives. Knowing this information will help you narrow down the best ways to reach your audience. Paint a picture of the type of woman that uses the birth control pill. If this audience consists of younger users, perhaps targeting them on social media will be the most effective. If they are more likely to live in progressive states over conservative ones, limit your campaign to the states and neighborhoods where it’s likely to be positively received.

Anticipate Reactions and Plan for Backlash

Is there any piece of your story that may elicit negative responses? Planning ahead for backlash will prepare your team to respond if your content backfires. If your content touches on a particularly sensitive topic or historical event, make sure that your team is educated about the subject and surrounding issues so that they effectively answer inbound questions or respond to media inquiries.

Don’t be afraid to make edits to your content if you fear it will elicit too many negative responses. At the end of the day, your goal is to interact with the audience to reflect your brand in a positive way. If your content will ultimately insult more people than it will inspire, scrap it and start afresh.

To play it safe, assume that your content is always going to offend someone. To combat this negativity, make a plan of action. Hypothesize the ways that your content could be negatively received. Should you plan on apologizing to anyone who finds it offensive, or should you defend your story by all means, like PETA did with their controversial campaign?

Test Your Story

Test your story on a smaller audience segment before making it available to the public. By inviting a handful of women to participate in a focus group about YourChoice, you can gauge the initial reactions that your content will elicit. If every single focus group participant is outraged by your idea, you should probably consider editing or scrapping it completely. If the younger women in your focus group are intrigued by the campaign, while older members are offended, maybe place your content in areas that are more popular with millennials or generation Z (college campuses, etc.) and avoid areas that attract baby boomers and those less likely to engage with your content.

It’s important to uphold your personal code of marketing ethics. If you feel strongly that your content strategy is moving in the wrong direction morally, it’s your responsibility to say something. At the same time, learn to recognize the best ways to engage with your intended audience by understanding its values, beliefs, shared stories, and overall demographics. The most compelling content is the kind that elicits strong reactions from viewers. Sometimes, these desired reactions will only result from content that strikes personal chords with members of your target audience. It’s your choice.

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Featured image attribution: Jerry Kiesewetter

Emma is an editorial manager at Skyword and enjoys reading and editing content for our programs. She graduated from American University in Washington, DC with a BA in Communications and from Georgetown University with an MA in Public Relations. Originally from Baltimore, Emma holds a special place in her heart for crabcakes. In her free time, Emma enjoys reading, hiking, skiing, biking, and watching horror movies.

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