Commentary

Bigmouth Marketing: How To Run Controversial Email Campaigns

Inboxes have been filled this week with searing fund-raising appeals from Presidential candidates.

In one, Joe Biden responds to President Trump's claim that he “abandoned” Pennsylvania. 

"I've never forgotten where I came from," the email says.

Biden goes on to charge that Trump “doesn't understand what it's like to worry you will lose the roof over your head. He doesn't understand what it's like to wonder if you'll be able to put food on the table.”

Even more on the edge are emails from Democrats on the abortion issue, like this recent one from Senator Elizabeth Warren:

“In Alabama, Missouri, and in states across the country, extremist Republican lawmakers are trying to turn back the clock, outlaw abortion, and deny women access to reproductive health care.”

Marketing copywriters could well ask: How do they get away with it? That's why Jolina Landicho's article, How to Create a Controversial Marketing Campaign That Converts, is timely, although it doesn't address politics or email.  

Landicho's piece, out now on Social Media Today, explores the opportunities — and risks — of marketing designed to incite. Even political copywriters could learn from it.

“The cliché suggests that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and while that’s not entirely true, the initial goal of controversial marketing is to stir the pot,” Landicho writes.

Here’s the downside: “In 2019, almost everything carries the possibility of offending certain people,” Landicho adds. 

That’s for sure.

Landicho defines three types of controversial subjects:

  • Shocking/unexpected 
  • Taboo 
  • Debatable 

You’re safest choosing debatable subjects. With those, you can “actively engage people from both sides of the discussion (or more), while making everyone participating aware of your brand,” Landicho continues.

To illustrate this, Landicho reviews several campaigns. One is Superdrug Online Doctors’ Perception of Perception campaign, in which “designers from 18 countries were asked to Photoshop a model's body according to the beauty standards of their respective cultures.”

Landicho seems to give this one high marks, but I can see how it could offend someone — when I viewed it before reading the description, I assumed it was a lingerie ad. Anyway, isn’t the comparison of national beauty standards a little retrograde? 

In other instances, the brand insertions are heavy handed. For instance, Oreo ran — or is running — a Facebook ad tied to Pride Day, showing icings of several different colors sandwiched between two Oreo cookies.

I found it cynical, but it drew 300,000 likes. 

Want to spice up your creative by engaging in controversy? Landicho offers some sound tips: 

  • Choose the right subject
  • Don't be too self-serving 
  • Present facts and don't over-sensationalize
  • Don't exploit contentious issues
  • Inspire a respectful discussion
  • Keep your team on board
  • Have a crisis management plan

I would add a few additional suggestions, from the nanny marketing perspective:

Be aware that you are launching a controversial campaign. Don't stumble into it only to be shocked later by the reaction.

Don't generalize about groups of people, even those you are targeting. It's easy to be patronizing about age groups, gender IDs, religions and ethnicities to which you don't belong.

The old cliché was that women should write copy for women, young people for young people and men for men. But that can't always be done. I have known direct mail writers who could write for anyone — that's why they were paid $35,000 per package.

Those writers never mimicked the voices of the people they were addressing — instead, they based their case strictly on the benefits to those individuals.   

Be careful about graphics. Here is where campaigns often inadvertently mess up. On the dumbest level, don't illustrate an email to baby boomers with images of people riding golf carts in Florida. But there are far more egregious cases in which offensive symbols were utilized, either through ignorance or malice on someone's part.

With all that in mind, here are two process suggestions:

First, have your legal department vet your creative, especially if it mentions a competitor or seems to be too hyperbolic about your product.  

Second, there should be at least one person in-house who acts as a sensitivity editor. This doesn't mean you have to make a hire, but someone should vet outgoing content for political correctness, context, fairness, historical accuracy and other imperatives.   

All this is not easy to do in a real-time environment where millions of emails are going out weekly. So the solution is to make sure everyone on the team is thoroughly steeped in the above values. Then you can start having fun.

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