April 13, 2017    6 minute read

When Pushing It Pays: How Social Media Has Made Controversy Financially Rewarding

Pepsi Problems    April 13, 2017    6 minute read

When Pushing It Pays: How Social Media Has Made Controversy Financially Rewarding

It has been called exploitative, tone-deaf and one of the worst adverts of all time – and those are the kind reviews. It has been thoroughly mocked by talk shows across America and the world over. It has been scorned and ridiculed by prominent civil rights figures such as Bernice King and DeRay McKesson. The latest Pepsi advert was so contentious that the company had to pull the advert and issue a public apology in under a day.

Bad for Business? Not Really

It would, therefore, be logical to presume that Pepsi’s latest misstep is bad for business. Yet, since that advert, Pepsi has been talked about more now than at any other time in the last 5 years. The following charts show the last 12 months of worldwide Google searches.

The first belongs to Pepsi’s more popular competitor Coca-Cola:

Source: Google

The second to the star of the Pepsi advert, Kendall Jenner:

Source: Google

The final one to Pepsi itself:

Source: Google

Furthermore, Pepsi has experienced a gain in both Twitter followers and Facebook likes since their latest advert. Using an estimate from a recent lawsuit by mobile phone site PhoneDog, each twitter follower is worth $2.50. That represents a tangible financial gain to Pepsi in the space of 3 days, solely from an increase in Twitter followers, and all for an advert that was running for less than 24 hours and never appeared on TV.

Source: SocialBakers


Traditional thinking would suggest that this significant misstep is sure to repel consumers in the long run and, thus investors would react negatively. Nevertheless, using the share price as an indicator for investors, Pepsi’s share price has fallen a grand total of about 0.3% since April 4th – a fall too insignificant to attribute to any form of reaction to Pepsi’s recent advert campaign.

Whether Pepsi’s public misstep is bad for business might not be so obvious anymore.

No New Phenomenon

It is always hard to tell exactly how much an advertising campaign actually affects sales, with varying results and proclamations in the economic literature. However, the idea that all publicity is good publicity is not new, nor is it unique to only Pepsi.

Protein World, for example, ran a controversial advert that garnered a lot of criticism in the summer of 2015. It inspired widespread protest, including a petition boasting over 100,000 signatures demanding the advert’s removal, eventually being banned by incoming London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Advertising magazine Campaign named it the worst advert of 2015. In response to this mass criticism, Protein World’s marketing director, Richard Staveley, unapologetically claimed: “It’s been a brilliant campaign for us.” He was not exaggerating, either: Protein World claims the £250,000 ad campaign resulted in 30,000 new customers and an extra £2m in sales in under a week.

Clearly, not everyone who saw the “beach body ready” campaign agreed it was offensive enough deter them from buying the company’s products – a sentiment the advertising watchdog would later support, saying that the ad did not breach any UK rules relating to harm and offence or responsible advertising.

So impressed were Protein World by the response to their first campaign that they ran another advert with a very similar provocative message, less than 2 months later – this time featuring Khloe Kardashian (apparently the family has a propensity for starring in inflammatory adverts). However, it appears the shock value had worn off, with this advert failing to go viral.

Controversy Sells

For a campaign to be successful, it must appeal to its core target market. If everyone else is talking about the campaign, that is simply an added bonus. With an over-sensationalised media, it is easy to forget that the views of a vocal minority don’t necessarily reflect the entire population. As writer Alex Smith says: “Brands now have the power to dismiss or even outright attack people who don’t fit within their target” thanks to the Internet and social media.

He goes on to show how “anger drives virality,” using Twitter traction to compare the reaction to the announcement of the royal baby to the that of the death of Cecil the lion. The story of the Lion’s death, which was met with widespread rage, was much more popular and for far longer – despite having far less traditional media coverage.

The announcement of the royal baby:

Cecil the lion’s untimely demise:

It would appear, then, that controversial advertising campaigns can indeed pay off for companies, albeit with obvious diminishing returns. At some point, a company stops being edgy and becomes simply obnoxious. One need look no further than Uber’s growing troubles, which have only been worsened by their CEO’s repeated PR mishaps.

The Future of Controversy

The Pepsi advert was most certainly tone-deaf, and insulting to many who feel it made light of some very serious issues. Yet as the author writes this article with a bottle of Pepsi in hand, the power of being controversial and spoken about on social media is plain to see. Whilst drawing controversy was probably not Pepsi’s intention, it will likely reap the benefits either way.

This, after all, is a where controversial viewpoints are no longer restricted to the fringes but are now prominent in the mainstream. In an era when UKIP won over 12% of the popular vote in the last UK general election, when Marine Le Pen might realistically win the popular vote in the upcoming French elections, or when Donald Trump, a man who boasted about committing sexual assault, was subsequently elected President and leader of the free world, it should be no surprise that being controversial is not that bad for business.

In an age when social media and virality plays such a crucial part in companies’ exposure, and ultimately sales, too, the message of an advert is now far less important than its reach. As information becomes easier to share than ever before, the ability to trend is now perhaps as crucial a measure of success as the well-crafted brand image that companies have for so long built and protected.

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