A while ago, I read an article which looked at the controversial tactics employed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA regularly makes headlines due to their promotional tactics – in this post, the author, Scott Alexander, discusses PETA’s campaign to pay the water bills of needy families in Detroit if those families would stop eating meat. The campaign was widely criticised, with commentators criticising the arrogance of PETA’s move – these people are about to have their water cut-off because they can’t afford to pay such basic human needs, the last thing they’re considering is going vegan. It’s just one example of the many divisive campaigns PETA has dished up, campaigns that have made them one of the most despised activist groups in the world. But that controversy, which sparks so much hate against them, casts so much negativity over their presence, is also the reason why PETA is successful.

Unity in Controversy

Here’s the thing: PETA’s cause is one which pretty much everyone is in agreement about. People hurting animals is not good, there’s very few people in the world who would be in support of the ‘unethical’ treatment of animals. If PETA were to go out and ask people to stop hurting animals, they’d generally get support, but what they wouldn’t get is attention. As their cause is not divisive, they can’t get the same amount of attention they generate through controversy in other forms – people would definitely support their mission, but no one would be talking about it.

The example used in Scott Alexander’s post is Vegan Outreach, an organisation who do pretty much the same thing as PETA. But have you ever heard of Vegan Outreach? Few people have – but everyone’s heard of PETA. They generate attention, and while much of that attention is bad and may actually turn people against them, the divisive nature of it causes people to take sides. Inspiring such a response solidifies supporters of what they do, making them more passionate and more dedicated to the cause, whilst also fuelling the haters. The very nature of their activism gives ammunition to their opposition, but at the same time, it strengthens their community. With that in mind, is controversy still an effective tactic?

The Risks of Repulsion

Marketing is all about generating attention – but the right attention is what you really want. The old saying of ‘all publicity is good publicity’ is often shown to be true, but even then, very few organisations go out of their comfort zone and declare their stance on divisive issues for fear of alienating significant portions of their audience. This is definitely a major risk, but what the PETA example shows is that standing for something, taking a hard line that forces people to choose one side or the other, can actually strengthen your brand by inspiring supporters to side with you. But, of course, not every brand has a controversial angle to take – you’d be hard pressed to find a topic that separates fans of paperclips, for example. But maybe the issue doesn’t have to be directly related to your brand.

In the example noted above, PETA has jumped on board an issue not related to animal cruelty – poverty in Detroit – and has shoe-horned their issue into the spotlight by making it about them. That makes everyone angry, everyone gets up in arms about PETA and declares their hate for such a lowdown tactic. Then the conversation shifts to other things PETA has done in the past. Then the conversation shifts to what PETA is actually trying to achieve. Now you find yourself talking about animal cruelty and PETA’s mission, and debating the effectiveness of their tactics, which, in itself, is an endorsement of the very thing you’re debating. It’s what’s more commonly known, these days, as newsjacking, and this case in particular highlights how newsjacking, hijacking a popular topic of discussion for your own brand benefit, can be used well, and why we see more and more brands trying, and mostly failing, to latch on to the latest trending hashtag. Because most of the time, their efforts are lightweight. They’re one-note jokes or random associations that fall flat. But there is power in controversy, and on taking a stand, particularly if there’s a way that stance can generate conversation around your brand. There’s a significant risk that you’ll also inspire hate, but maybe, in some cases, accumulating haters is useful. Or at least acceptable, if the case is that you’re also solidifying those likely to endorse your message.

Taking a Stand

As the old saying goes, ‘if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything’. You need to be about something, you need to be for your mission. In the new age of the connected consumer and amplified word-of-mouth marketing, it’s more important than ever for brands to be connected with their communities, to show ‘this is who we are’ as much as ‘this is what we do’. Customer experience is fast becoming the most significant differentiating factor for brands, and that comes down to personalisation, to listening, and to building community by enabling fans to join your cause. If your cause is to make as much money as possible, good luck with that, that’s a pretty difficult ethos for your community to buy into (just ask the banking sector). But if your cause is grounded in your offering and aligned to what people seek from your business, you’ll be much better placed to generate real community and real engagement – and thus, real brand relationships. And trust. That trust is key, that’s what will turn customers into advocates and advocates into advertisers, through word-of-mouth spread across our evermore connected social networks. Taking a stance on something is important. Stating what you do and who you are is the only way people can align with your mission.

Does that mean you should jump onto the next trending topic and seek the most divisive stance possible, just to generate attention? No, bad attention is generally bad. Look at Justine Sacco, the former director of corporate communications for IAC, who was dismissed after tweeting a controversial remark regarding a trip she was taking to South Africa. There was no real benefit to that coverage for IAC, and they detached themselves from any association with Sacco’s comment. But there was never a plan behind that tweet – Sacco made an error of judgement. This case highlights the negative side of sparking controversy, in that it caused major damage to Sacco’s career.

No, jumping in and saying something just for the sake of attention is not the way to go for any brand. But targeted newsjacking can be of benefit. Divisiveness, taking a stance on a particular issue, can help solidify your supporters and build community. Not many brands would be willing to take such risks, but the potential benefits are there, if done in a planned way.

Conversations don’t spread because they simply support what everyone’s already thinking, they spread because they spark emotion of some kind. Fear, Sadness, Joy – these are the triggers that compel people to feel something, and compel people to share content. Anger is one. Disgust is another. Controversy generates discussion, though it’s often too controversial for most to consider as a valid opportunity for promotion.

Andrew Hutchinson

Andrew Hutchinson

Freelance Writer/Social Media Consultant at adh
Andrew Hutchinson is an internationally published author, award-winning blogger and social media consultant from Melbourne, Australia. He has more than 12 years experience working in media monitoring, helping clients locate, evaluate and action keyword occurrences in all forms of traditional and digital media. He's also a Hootsuite Ambassador for the APAC region and one of the 'Best Thinkers' on leading social media news website Social Media Today. If you're looking for a writer for your business, or advice on how to maximise your digital media presence, please go to www.andrewhutchinson.com.au for more information.
Andrew Hutchinson