Can SMEs adopt controversial advertising techniques?

Can SMEs adopt controversial advertising techniques?

November 30, 2017

Choosing a controversial message for your advertising campaign is a risk for any company — but if you are willing to take it, it could be a risk that pays off for your brand.

Whilst it might ruffle some feathers within society, one thing that is guaranteed is it will catch people’s attention. But the question remains, where do you draw the line? How far is too far? Is there such a thing as bad publicity?

With an advertising campaign, you’re winning if you manage to get your audience engaging with and discussing your brand — and alternative approaches to advertising, such as the use of controversy and humour in campaigns, can do exactly that. However, it’s subjective to the person viewing it — an advert can be interpreted in many ways, and what one person might find amusing, another could find grossly offensive. The trick is to be clever with your message and imagery, rather than offensive. With 30% of men and women admitting they avoided purchasing from brands with distasteful advertising campaigns, be careful with how you approach your campaign.

Volkswagen is known for its alternative approach to advertising campaigns — in particular, its VW Polo campaigns. VW dealership, Vindis, explores how Volkswagen has used controversy and humour by taking advantage of potentially bad news, and why it has worked — can other SMEs capitalise on this advertising technique?

Is it clever?

Using current affairs and viral trends to grab the attention of your audience is almost genius — and Volkswagen has a reputation for piggy-backing onto current affairs to keep its advertising campaigns up-to-date and attention-grabbing. It has continued to approach all VW Polo advertising with the moto ‘small but tough’.

In 2014, an image went viral across the internet showing an elephant straddling a Volkswagen Polo, assumedly using the vehicle as a scratching post. VW saw this image as an opportunity to capitalise on its popularity, using the image to suggest that the Polo comes with ‘Elephant Impact Protection as Standard’. The campaign was amusing to the audience, whilst also relatable and current as the image was ‘real’. Whilst this could have been potential bad news about an elephant getting close and personal, crushing the VW Polo, the brand saw an opportunity to utilise the image in its favour, tactfully making the most of its ‘small but tough’ slogan.

The internet had already gone crazy for the original image — the image had only come to the attention of VW through social media. Following the rise of digital media and social media apps, advertisers and brands can use ‘viral marketing’ as a tool to spread information almost immediately.

VW is clever at using the VW polo slogan in its campaigns. In 2003, VW capitalised on the ‘small but tough’ slogan again in its ‘Cops’ advertisement. Showing a dozen police officers taking cover behind the VW Polo whilst in a gun battle, the brand cleverly got its message across to the audience — ‘small but tough. Polo.’

Volkswagen makes sure that it uses a model’s best feature to its full advantage in its advertising campaigns. One of its campaigns capitalised on the size of the brand’s supermini. With the tag line ‘one benefit of the new Polo is that you can park it anywhere’, the advertisement shows a VW Polo parked on top of the billboard. Suggesting you literally can park it anywhere.

Is it worth the risk?

For smaller companies, controversy is a big risk and it could make or break their brand if they go ‘too far’. However, controversy can pay off if you are clever about it, with potential to get your brand noticed. There are some topics which you should always avoid. Generally, it’s a safe option to avoid anything to do with racism, sexuality, religion, and politics; as with these topics, everyone is likely to have different opinions. SMEs in particular should stick to safer topics that are more likely to get away with a controversial approach. The best way to approach your advertising campaigns is to keep up with viral and current trends. Capitalising with reactive marketing is a great way to drive engagement towards your brand. Reactivate marketing campaigns are designed to jolt the viewer awake — shock adverts catch the viewer’s attention, and usually keeps it.

Social media offers SMEs an opportunity to push out their branding for free — a chance to gain just as much exposure as their giant competitors if they use it correctly. Whether you are a large corporate business or an SME, Google, and the likes, can’t differentiate between each and treats you both the same. It’s up to the users and readers to choose who deserves the exposure and recognition. Remember, it’s free to set up a social media profile. Whilst you might not have the same budget as a larger competitor, that’s no reason not to be seen or heard. Keep current trends in mind, and be clever with your advertising. If you can catch your audience’s attention, there is nothing separating you from the big boys.

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