Is Controversial Marketing Worth the Risk?

People having different reactions to an edgy marketing campaign

There are always topics that split the room. And just like people, companies can take a stand. Using controversy as a marketing tool is purposely setting up your marketing to speak out on a controversial topic. That could mean using images or slogans that get a reaction, or showing a dark, non-PC sense of humor.

Controversial marketing helps you step beyond simply offering a product and shows your principles or values. But is it worth the risk? And is your small business a good candidate for this type of marketing? Read on for more.


Is controversial marketing a good idea?

Should small companies use controversial marketing or play it safe? The idea is, well…controversial. Here are some pros and cons:


  • Controversy draws attention — A controversial campaign makes you take a second look. Did this company really do this? That sticks in people’s memories better than a traditional ad. 
  • Controversy creates brand awareness for less — It gives people a reason to tell others about your company. If you have a small budget but your ad goes viral, you get a lot of bang for your buck. 
  • Controversy can appeal to a target audience — A well-targeted campaign shows you share the values of your target audience and helps you connect. 


  • Controversy is divisive — Controversy splits public opinion. Some support your idea, others might feel offended by it and feel negatively about your company.
  • Controversy can be a reason not to buy — A controversial campaign might lose some customers who would otherwise buy from you. 
  • Controversy can lead to extra work — If you’ve done your job right, people will tell you what they think. Do you have the time to answer all those messages


Example of controversial marketing: Gillette

In a recent Gillette ad, the company drew praise and criticism for their ad exploring toxic masculinity. The topic was a natural fit for their product and slogan, and it sparked a conversation on both sides.


Should small companies use shock advertising?

Large brands can typically afford a bit of controversy, even if they lose some customers along the way. For small companies, the risk is much higher if a campaign backfires.

Controversial marketing can also be a natural fit for values-based companies that are trying to fix a particular problem (helping the environment, promoting local farmers, etc.) These companies can speak directly to their target audience, spark the right kind of conversation, and stand behind their point of view even in the face of negative reactions.


How do I use controversy in my own marketing?

You don’t want to just be provocative for the sake of it. An effective campaign starts conversations and lets people think about the topic in combination with your company.

As marketing expert Jeff Bullas advises, the topic should connect naturally to your business, so it doesn’t sound like you’re weighing in on something that has nothing to do with you. It should also allow room for discussion. Very extreme statements leave little to discuss: people agree or they don’t. If you pick a more nuanced point to make, there is more room for discussion and you have a much better chance of people talking about your campaign.


How to judge your own controversial campaign before launch?

Run through this checklist by yourself first, then discuss it with your team. It’s even better if you can test some of your content to see if strangers respond the way you want.



  • Do I have a clear, measurable goal I want to achieve?
  • Does my campaign reach the right target group?
  • Could I reach my goal without controversy?
  • Is this goal important enough to upset or anger some people?
  • Does this campaign build the reputation I want?


  • Does the topic fit my brand naturally?
  • Does my campaign match what I say in other communication?
  • Does the campaign spark discussion from both sides?


  • Does my team support my controversial campaign?
  • Can we deal with people’s reactions? 
  • Do I have a solid crisis plan?

Personal impact

  • Do I feel proud of my campaign? Does it feel right?
  • Do I have the stomach to deal with criticism, or will it stress me out? 
  • Could this campaign damage my relationships?


Use the attention to grow

If all goes well, the attention you get from a controversial campaign can open doors for you. This is a perfect time to reach out to that company you always wanted to cooperate with, or call stores that might be interested in selling your products.

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Frank van Oosterhout
Frank is a copywriter for Jimdo with special interests in SEO and entrepeneurship. When he's not working, he bakes bread, grows herbs on his balcony, or goes running.