Outrage Marketing: Why Brands Manufacture Controversy
November 29, 2022
By: Grace Tan
Balenciaga, a world-renowned fashion house, has recently come under fire for an ad
campaign that featured children holding BDSM-themed teddy bears. The ads were
rightfully criticized for sexualizing young children and have called into question the
legitimacy and future of the brand. However, this is not the first time Balenciaga has
found itself in the middle of controversy. Earlier this year, Balenciaga sold
“heavily distressed” pairs of sneakers for $1850, which was criticized for its general
ridiculousness and for making light of poverty.
Courtesy of Highsnobiety
Despite all these controversies that Balenciaga has been in, they are still regarded as a
highly sought-after brand. It brings into question, why brands manufacture outrage
and it works.
What is Outrage Marketing?
Outrage marketing, also known as “shock advertising” uses taboo or shocking images,
words, or concepts to startle or upset the viewer. You may have heard the saying, “all
publicity is good publicity”. To companies and people that use outrage marketing, this
saying is the foundation of their ethos; to be talked about poorly is better than to not be
talked about at all.
Examples of Outrage Marketing
There are several examples of outrage marketing from a range of industries. The
fashion industry is just one of them. Another industry that has utilized shock advertising
is the food industry. A recent example was when Burger King tweeted “Women belong
in the kitchen” on International Women’s Day in 2021 as a means to promote their
upcoming female cook scholarship, which was obviously met with serious backlash.
Though Burger King later retracted and apologized for this tweet, claiming they were
only trying to “draw attention to the fact that only 20% of cooks are women”, the wording
and postdate were obviously intentionally curated in a way to grab viewers’ attention.
Courtesy of Adweek
However, shock advertising is not always used in a negative or socially harmful way.
For example, cigarette companies will place distressing photos and statistics on their
packaging as a way to warn buyers about the dangers of cigarettes and hopefully deter
them from buying and using them. Advertisements about the harm of nicotine will also
use upsetting videos and stories to disturb viewers and make them visualize the harm of
Courtesy of CNN
So, does it work?
Outrage marketing takes advantage of a rather unfortunate fallacy in human psychology, which is that things that make us upset are easier and more likely to be remembered than things that make us happy. In an article written by Washington Post, Dr. Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology at Stanford, explains the evolutionary reasoning for this phenomenon. In the past, humans had to pay more attention to dangers in order to survive. Humans who remembered bad or dangerous experiences committed them to memory so they could recall how to avoid or get out of similar, future experiences. This explains why both in life and in marketing, the bad is much easier to remember than the good.
Outrage marketing can definitely generate conversation, increase visibility, and the memorability of a brand. However, with the examples in this article, it's hard to attribute any material gain or loss to their marketing tactics. Though, because neither of these brands seemed to lose sales or damage their reputation too greatly following their controversies seem to show that outrage marketing works best for popular brands who have “nothing to lose”; a loyal or large user base or an established company that can risk a drop in sales.
In the age of social media, outrage and controversy seem to be more present than ever, making it easy for companies and brands to generate online anger. Ironically, it is also because of the hyper-visibility of online outrage that people have become increasingly desensitized to both advertising campaigns but also real-life tragedies and negative news.
Brands should think about the long-term consequences of using shock advertising on both a societal and corporate level, but we as viewers should also think about how we engage with online outrage, and if our contribution to the conversation just ends up giving companies what they want.
Grace Tan is a Sophomore studying Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU Steinhardt and is on the Content Committee for the Fall 2022 semester. Keep an eye out for more exciting content from Grace!