Bolder isn’t always better: When controversial slogans go wrong

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With any marketing campaign, the aim is to grab attention and stick in the minds of consumers. However, with the perceived need to be controversial with every new campaign, the pressure can seem to overcome any common sense in the marketing departments of some of the largest brands.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Coca-Cola unveiled its new marketing campaign with the tagline “You’re on. Diet Coke.” In the TV advert, which aired during the Sochi Olympic Games, Taylor Swift takes a drink of Diet Coke before being told, “You’re on.” – as in, it’s time for you to go on stage. Perfectly innocent, ay? But when you see the print version of the campaign, things start to get a little risqué.

The positioning of the slogan and the logo prompts readers to read the ads to say “You’re on. Coke”, which could be referring to drug use. Another ad reads, “All you’ve got is a tight deadline, a nose, and a grindstone”, which could be referring to using cocaine. And, as a happy coincidence spotted by AdWeek, the advertising company in charge of this campaign has a name that literally means drugs in Spanish.

Coca-Cola responded with this statement: “This advertising is one part of the new campaign for Diet Coke, which is called ‘You’re On.’ It celebrates ambitious young achievers from all walks of life and reminds them that Diet Coke is there to support them in the moments when they are at their best. Every single day, young people around the world experience ‘You’re On’ moments big and small. It could be a job interview or a national TV interview, a first date or a final exam, a presentation to your boss or a performance in front of thousands. The Diet Coke logo is the centrepiece of the ad campaign. Diet Coke in no way endorses or supports the use of any illegal substance.”

Sticking with the narcotics theme, a sporting brand tried to rock the boat in 2011. Nike released a series of T-shirts as part of the Nike 6.0 campaign with controversial slogans such as “Get high”, “Dope” and “F*** gravity”. The brand claimed that they were just promoting the lingo used by the participants of action sports, but many other people—including several American politicians—took the slogans to be glamorising drugs.

We also have the ‘ingenious’ slogan from a gym in Germany affiliated with Reebok in 2012, which said: “Cheat on your girlfriend, not your workout.” Although not a worldwide Reebok campaign, the poster did intend to motivate gym users into sticking to their fitness regime but only served to insult women and assume awful gender stereotypes. Reebok quickly pulled the ad and acknowledged its insensitivity, but the damage was already done, with the power of social media.

Coca-Cola and Nike must have foreseen the backlash from these campaigns, and it is safe to say that they will have a pre-worded statement at the ready for whatever comes their way. So it seems ridiculous to suggest that these companies are not going for the shock value of using drug vernacular to promote their products.

Controversy gets attention and is not easily forgotten, but taking this route with your marketing is a big risk. You can alienate a large proportion of your consumers and can ultimately change the way that people view your brand, which in turn can seriously damage your profits.

So, to play it safe, why not just use lots of kittens in your marketing campaign—as McVities have done with their recent Digestives advert? There can be no media furore from tiny kittens and their big, innocent eyes gazing at you. Leave the glamorisation of drugs and prompts to cheat to risqué comedians, and maybe think a little harder about how you want your brand represented.


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