Source: Midphase

In the first part of a two-part article, Kelly Kirkham explores the concept of outrage marketing as recently brought to the fore by Urban Outfitters…

Urban Outfitters reminded us last week that not all press is good press. The release of their highly controversial blood and bullet hole sweatshirt made national headline news. Although there was only one sweater available, that one sweater reminded us all about the dark side of outrage marketing.

For newbie marketers, outrage marketing is a marketing exercise that’s carried out with the aim of generating brand awareness through the use of controversy.

This isn’t the first time that Urban Outfitters has used outrage marketing to fire up customers. Other offensive marketing stunts include shot glasses that were designed to look like pill bottles, t-shirts that seemingly advocated eating disorders, as well as blue striped jumpers designed with a gold star that too-closely resembled a Star of David.

Urban Outfitters has perfected the ‘art of upsetting’, after learning that upset often leads to publicity.

Of course, they’re not the only company who seem to work hard at making people angry with controversial advertising. Outrage marketing has caused many heads to shake over the last twenty years.

So much so that it’s worth asking whether these offensive and outrageous marketing methods really work. Or do companies ultimately regret their hasty pleas for attention?

We looked back at some of the most controversial outrage marketing attempts to see if, in the long run, outrage marketing actually helps or hurts a business.

In 2009, the animal rights organization PETA posted a billboard displaying a large woman in a bikini with the words, “Save the Whales – Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian”. This offensive display was not seen as friendly banter or a light joke and was promptly taken down. PETA single handedly offended every driver on the freeway with their use of outrage marketing.

You might believe that the universal panning of this campaign would make it a marketing flop for PETA. However, the campaign got the organisation priceless coverage in publications like the Huffington Post.

In 2012, Adidas released the JS Roundhouse Mids, a hip $350 sneaker completed by shackles that attached to the shoe wearer’s ankle. Yes, I actually said the word ‘shackles’. The response from the public was instant and angry. Media sources across the globe simultaneously shook their head. Adidas announced that they were in no way promoting slavery and quickly pulled the product. Jesse Jackson was quoted after the ordeal saying, “The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation […] is offensive, appalling and insensitive.”

Despite this, the marketing stunt gave Adidas the opportunity to talk about how ‘creative’ and ‘edgy’ they were in publications like USA Today and the Huffington Post.

One attempt at outrage marketing that certainly can’t be seen as a success is the case of LifeLock. In 2006, LifeLock CEO Todd Davis committed a marketing fail of massive proportions. Davis publicly displayed his social security number on billboards and commercials across the nation to prove that his company was guaranteed to protect your identity. Customers across the US were outraged when they learned that Todd Davis’s company wasn’t so fail proof. In fact, his identity was stolen 13 times because of his marketing stunt. What’s more, the Federal Trade Commission fined LifeLock $12 million dollars in 2010 for deceptive advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission is constantly on the lookout for ridiculous marketing claims or offensive material in hopes that they can pull the ad or product before it reaches the public.

So what does the hard evidence say? Can shock advertising lead to profits in the long term? Benetton could be used as part of the yes argument here. This fashion brand were one of the first companies to use shock advertising and their name became famous around the world. Since purposefully abandoning outrage campaigns, their sales figures have actually dropped.

Researcher Randesh Manchanda discovered that outrage marketing attempts tend to earn attention better than fear or information-based adverts. He also discovered that shock adverts tended to be remembered better. Psychologists have also found links between emotion in advertising and improved memory.

Other researchers Javed and Zeb have concluded that shock advertising can impact negatively on a brand’s image in the long term.

Returning to Urban Outfitters, the company have apologised for the shirt, saying…

“Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State.”

However, iit might actually be the case that their cutting-edge shock and awe campaign might not be as cutting edge as their marketing department potentially thought it would be. Some advertising industry experts are now suggesting that outrage marketing will soon go the way of the dodo.

There’s speculation that nudge advertising is the next big thing.

Keep your eye on the Midphase blog for the next in this two-part article and to find out more about creating a nudge campaign…