The Role of Controversy in Social Media Marketing

In the news business they say “if it bleeds, it leads” and there’s a similar feeling around social media spheres “Controversy Captivates”. Controversy is a powerful, yet risky, tool of the anti-heroes in social media marketing. While it is compelling and increases your engagement rates, controversial content can also have negative consequences for your small business. If you’re ready to embrace your anti-hero tendencies, adding a bit of careful controversy to your social media marketing might be just the thing to spice it up.

Controversy in Social Media Marketing

Controversial anti-hero content works by challenging the status quo and creating ripples in the digital landscape. You can evoke strong reactions, spark debates, and become a focal point of public discourse by sharing your “spicy take” on topics in your niche. When you adopt a controversial stance, it not only stands out but also encourages followers to share, comment on, and react to your content. Big name brands like Always and Nike are experts at this, reclaiming phrases “Like a Girl” and choosing polarizing spokespeople to get their messages out. Popular creators like Alicia Mccarvell are well-versed in creating “controversy”. But how can a small business, or even a solopreneur get in on this anti-hero action?

As a solopreneur or small business, you are in charge of your brand. There’s no big ad department, Board of Directors, or levels of approval to get through. If YOU want to make a controversial statement you can!

The Anti-Hero Approach: Embracing the Edge

The anti-hero, by definition, is a character who subverts conventional heroism. They’re not your typical knight in shining armour; they’re flawed, relatable, and often sit on the fence between right and wrong. In social media marketing, unleashing your anti-hero persona means taking bold stances, challenging norms, and sometimes, courting controversy.

We’ve seen “Big Beer” take some huge risks in 2023, but smaller companies might be even more successful at using controversy to bring awareness to both their brand and their cause. Check out some of the craft beers launched by Brew Dog in recent years:

  • “Never Mind the Anabolics” (2012): A beer launched during the 2012 London Olympics, aimed at criticizing corporate aspects of the event and doping in sports​​.
  • “Hello My Name is Vladimir” (2014): A protest beer supporting the LGBTQ+ community, responding to Russia’s ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ during the Winter Olympics​​.
    “Pink IPA” (2018): Intended as a satirical comment on gender pay inequality, this campaign was criticized for being perceived as patronizing, showcasing the risks of misinterpretation in controversial marketing​​.

And even local craft breweries are known for taking on political themes, advocating for change and awareness, and leaning over the fence in to offensive territory on occasion. Here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, we had a local craft beer maker name their new beer “Dirty Blonde”. The name itself wasn’t controversial in beer circles, with many dirty blondes around the market, but it was their marketing that might have leaned over the wrong side of the fence when they used the phrase “Blondes have more fun” to promote the beer.

However loud the backlash may have been a few years ago, the controversy over the beer appears to have died down with the local brewery not only continuing to promote Dirty Blonde, but a non-alcoholic version, special anniversary commemorative versions, and some controversial merchandise available in-store. In this case it looks like the controversial content of their inital ad campaigns and social media worked in their favour in the long run.

Anti-Hero Strategies for Leveraging Controversy in Social Media Marketing

Understanding Your Audience

A deep understanding of your audience is crucial. What might stimulate healthy debate for some could be deeply offensive to others. Even something as seemingly benign as adding a swear word to your content could turn people off. The reason the local brewery could double down on their “Dirty Blonde” defence was because they knew their audience would find the marketing humourous, even if other people found it offensive. So long as your audience appreciates it more than others don’t, you’re golden.

Aligning with Brand Values

Any controversial stance must align with your core values. This ensures authenticity, making any foray into controversy feel more genuine and less like an attention-seeking ploy.

  • A sustainable fashion boutique posts controversial photos of clothing landfills.
  • A health food company shows the chemicals in foods people think are healthy.
  • An artist speaking out against AI generated art, #ArtForHumansByHumans.

Balancing Engagement with Sensitivity

Controversy should stimulate conversations and debates, not alienate or offend your followers. You need to find a balance – being bold enough to captivate but sensitive enough to respect your audience. Sparking meaningful discussions on topics that matter to your ideal audience expresses your thought leadership within your industry. And as a knowledge expert, this is one of your big goals, isn’t it? Becoming a thought leader in your field.

Well, you know what I always say about that. If you want to be a thought leader, you have to have, AND SHARE, leading thoughts. Leading thoughts are often controversial because they jab at the status quo.

One of my favourite anti-hero social media marketers is Dr. Jenn Salib Huber. She challenges entrenched diet culture, especially that which is aimed at women in perimenopause. Jenn

  • uses her platform to promote intuitive eating and body positivity​​ #NoFoodRules;
  • shares her personal experiences and struggles, making her content highly relatable and authentic;
  • debunks myths and provides valuable insights​​​​​​.

As if that wasn’t enough…she talks about… {looking quickly side to side and whispering} periods and menstruation. GASP. Here’s an example of how she’s poking the bear of the diet industry:

Preparing for and Managing Backlash

Controversy often comes with backlash. Before you create controversial content, be absolutely sure you’re ready to stand behind what you’ve posted. If people disagree with you, how will you respond? Will you be able to respond respectfully and professionally? When Dr. Salib Huber is questioned on her posts, she provides peer-reviewed studies, and answers questions professionally. It’s all about educating people.

The Role of Controversy in Social Media Marketing

Controversy in social media marketing, when leveraged with a strategic and thoughtful approach, can be an effective tool in your anti-hero marketing tool box. It’s not just about being provocative; it’s about challenging norms, sparking discussions, and engaging with audiences on a deeper level. Like the anti-hero in a movie, if you navigate these complex waters with authenticity, purpose, and sensitivity you can change the conversations in your industry and make people think twice about long-held beliefs. Dr. Huber’s advocacy against diet culture and the brewery’s use of sexual innuendo illustrate the diverse ways controversy can be employed. Both cases highlight the importance of aligning with brand values, understanding audience reactions, and the delicate balance required when using controversy in social media marketing.


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