Is Trash-Talking Good Strategy?

Check out any Fantasy Football message board, blacktop pickup basketball court, or “Call of Duty” battlefield, and you’ll see the flourishing of an often-misunderstood emotional play: trash-talking. In these worlds, talking trash is an accepted – and acceptable – part of the game. Competitors poke and prod and insult each other in order to provoke a negative reaction and gain an advantage. 

In the refined world of manners and sportsmanship, though, trash talking is generally considered inappropriate and gauche. 

But is talking trash ever a good strategy in the real world? 

Marco Materazzi probably thinks so whenever he looks at his World Cup trophy. He disrupted the 2006 World Cup final by talking trash about opponent Zinedine Zidane’s sister, angering the French star enough to head-butt him and get kicked out of the game. Which, ultimately, led to Italy’s victory over France.

Trash talk can be effective in disrupting norms, changing the conversation, and manipulating outcomes. 

Ask Richard Sherman. His aggressive yapping (and post-NFC Championship rant) polarized public opinion and turned him into the most famous football player on earth and then a Super Bowl champion.

In pop culture, we see this every day. Can anyone name the mayor of Atlanta? What about Minneapolis? But I’ll bet everyone reading this can name the mayor of Toronto. 

Can brands learn from and – gasp! – use this form of emotional manipulation? 

Most brands work hard (and spend big chunks of money) developing a clear sense of who they are, and what they stand for. But when it comes time to project that identity, many tend to be relatively modest. While they care about breaking through the onslaught of media clutter, they are also careful not to offend. But perhaps pissing off some people is the best way to get noticed.

John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, said his competitors’ contracts were “the biggest crock of shit I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” He followed up with a bizarre Vine in which he dressed as Santa Claus and dropped lumps of coal in his competitors’ stockings.

Cadillac recently took a little swipe at the French to launch their electric car. They could have stuck to the “innovation” brief and playbook, but instead they took a risk, and gambled on a lot of shocked mon Dieus. But when the dust settled, the spot drew a pretty clear line in the sand for the brand.

Perhaps tapping into unconventional emotions – like trash talk – could help give some brands a competitive edge. And, in doing so, create new symbols that come with explosive emotional content you can’t ignore. It’s obviously risky business, but maybe Richard Sherman and Rob Ford have a little something to teach us all.

1 comment about "Is Trash-Talking Good Strategy?".
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  1. Suzanne Sanders from S2 Advertising, March 13, 2014 at 11:40 a.m.

    Cable television and Direct TV have been doing trash talk campaign for years. Same with mobile carriers. Apple made Microsoft look dumb. Frankly I wouldn't want to have anything to do with someone who drives a Cadillac either. Who wants to deal with someone who is all work and no play! What's even worse with this type of technique for a ad campaign is that the audience tunes out and the message becomes blurred. Nobody likes a hater.

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