Controversy PR: how brands cash in on the offence economy

The opposite of virtue is not Vice. It’s the Daily Mail. This week, Centre Parcs announced that it would be joining an increasing number of brands – Lego, Paperchase, the Southbank Centre – who have chosen to stop advertising in the newspaper. The catalyst this time was an article by Richard Littlejohn, in which he approached the subject of same-sex parenting with his typical pose of bemused middle Englander – all the more sharply defined from the vantage point of his Florida villa.

The piece – which tore into dads-to-be Tom Daley and his partner Dustin Lance Black – was criticised in some quarters as ‘homophobic’. Cue the PR of moral outrage. Rather than buying an advert in the Mail, Centre Parcs got acres of free coverage elsewhere – while reaffirming its commitment to modern ‘family values’ – thanks to its decision. Will this encourage Guardianistas to forgo their usual Tuscan getaways for a jumbo lodge in Sherwood Forest? Probably not. I am even told by contacts inside the Mail (they’re human, too, you know) that they often see a modest upsurge in sales after a high-profile row.

It shouldn’t surprise us that brands have attempted to cash in on the offence economy. Recently, Poundland received a slapdown from the Advertising Standards Authority over its ‘Elves behaving badly’ social campaign. They justified their graphics – which featured Santa’s little helpers playing strip poker and tea-bagging Barbie – as boundary pushing. In their minds, they were being controversial. What some marketers have realised is that with polarising products and campaigns, they can use the backlash – real or sincere – to hijack the media and get attention. Despite the complaints and expressions of regret, the discount retailer racked up its most successful trading since 1990.

For anyone who works in the business of promotion – a vocation now given the respectably anodyne title of ‘Public Relations’– the tactical manipulation of controversy is the lifeblood of publicity. Where the advertiser can exhaust budgets fuelling a glossy campaign, the publicist navigates using the elements, tapping into the news agenda and knowing the buttons to press. There is an art to the creation of genuine controversy, one that doesn’t so much instil division as rummage around in the already existing fault lines and hypocrisies of our culture.

One may wonder if we have reached a moment of peak controversy. Are we now desensitised to its effect? I would put it differently: rather than being overwhelmed by genuine provocation, we are too eager to see outrage in every minor offence. Thanks to social media, people with no formal training in public relations can broadcast their complaints, no matter how trivial, to an audience to rival that of most nationals. A few critical tweets directed at a trailer to an upcoming Peter Rabbit film, which features an animated child with a blackberry allergy being pelted with them by a gang of bunnies, escalated into a viral campaign and led to a grovelling apology by the studio. But think of it this way. If it hadn’t been for the berry outrage, who would have heard of the Beatrix Potter reboot? It may not have been the PR campaign the studio had in mind but it has certainly lodged the film in parents’ minds as the Easter holidays loom.

Like satire, the making of a controversy can expose hypocrisies on either side of an argument. The quintessential story is when PR supremo Harry Reichenbach was hired by an art dealer who had acquired 2,000 copies of a print by middling impressionist Paul Chabas. ‘September Morn’, which features a naked woman demurely bathing in a lake, had won a number of respectable awards when it was exhibited in France in 1912. For Reichenbach, there was nothing more deadening than institutional respectability. He organised a complex sting which involved placing it in the window of the dealer’s New York gallery and contacting a prominent local anti-vice campaigner Anthony Comstock to visit the site. Reichenbach also hired a flock of children at $.50 apiece to act out a pantomime of frenzied sexual excess. When Comstock arrived, the kids played out their part to perfection and he demanded the gallery owner remove the offending item. The owner refused and the disagreement went to court and became a nationwide sensation. Needless to say, the gallery had to order more prints.

Comstock and his anti-vice brigade were arguably easy targets, their campaign a frequent source of parody in the early years of Hollywood. But for the publicist, subtlety is rarely helpful. Reichenbach knew that to get the message out he needed loud and colourful aggregators. Today we would call them ‘influencers’, although many who claim this title are little more than preachers to a YouTube silo. For a controversy to maintain interest, you need to ensure your influencers feed the beast. This requires a forensic understanding of what drives the crowd – the funny and the urgent, the shocking and the illuminating. Offence, on the other hand, is self-immolating. Momentum is found in ratcheting up the abuse and the vulgarity.

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