3 Ways to Make Controversial Content Work for Your Brand

Content Marketing


Most brands avoid controversy like the plague, in large part because on the surface it does seem ill-advised. Who would want to associate their name with something Merriam-Webster defines as an “argument that involves many people who strongly disagree about something?”

However, there are some who choose to stir the pot because they know something others might not fully understand yet. Controversy attracts attention because it triggers an emotional response, which is essential in generating massive engagement. It encourages audiences to click, read, and share the content.

One of the most difficult parts of controversial content, though, is execution. In this post, I’ll introduce three ways you can approach controversial content and how to determine which one is right for your brand:

3 Types of Controversial Content

The first thing you need to understand is that controversy for the sake of controversy is not going to provide value to your brand or target audience. To get big results, your content needs to get people talking in a way that can still benefit both your brand and consumers. Below are a few different approaches to controversial content along with examples that show how each type can positively relate back to a brand:

1. Disprove an easily held assumption by offering surprising or unexpected content. 

These ideas typically force audiences to rethink a common belief or rely heavily on a shocking visual. Consider “Hotel Hygiene Exposed,” which we created for our client Travelmath. A few members of our team went visited 9 different hotels in order to gather 36 samples from various surfaces. We sent the results to a third-party lab and found out that the nicest hotels are actually the dirtiest–driving more than 700 media pickups and 24,000 social shares.

controversial content about hotel hygiene

What made this campaign work is that although the results are controversial, the content still relates back to the services offered by the brand–specifically any visitors using Travelmath to find hotels for a future trip.

2. Take advantage of our innate interest in taboo subjects. 

These ideas center around topics that aren’t often discussed, which is why this type of content typically does incredibly well. A great example is the Ad Council’s incredibly successful “Love Has No Labels” video. The idea was quite simple: Using an X-ray machine, passersby saw different sets of skeletons showing various signs of affection to one another before revealing their sexuality–forcing viewers to rethink any unconscious biases they might have.

The video worked because it connected directly to the organization’s mission, which is to “produce, distribute, and promote campaigns that improve everyday lives.” And the ability to take a closer look at someone else’s differences–an often taboo subject–helped the video generate more than 57 million views on YouTube, becoming the second most-viewed community and activism campaign of all time.

3. Stir up a debate. 

Most controversial ideas would fall under this umbrella, with a majority of these campaigns presenting data from both sides of the fence so that readers can drive the discussion. A great example is real estate research site Adobo’s “America’s Most P.C. and Prejudiced Places” analysis, which revealed which areas have the most politically and non-politically correct tweets. The idea was controversial, but it worked because it answered one question everyone has when looking for a new place to live: Will I get along with my neighbors? This helped ignite a discussion that drove more than 620 placements and over 67,000 social shares.

How to Make Controversy Work for Your Brand

Although it sounds counterintuitive, most brands would be foolish to rule out controversy entirely. However, the examples above prove that these types of campaigns walk a very fine line. To maximize results, you want to stir the pot without having everything boil over since research has shown that too much controversy actually discourages engagement.

In one of their earlier studies together, researchers Jonah Berger and Zoey Chen analyzed more than 200 articles to see how controversy impacts engagement levels. Their results revealed that while low-level controversy encourages discussion among audiences, anything beyond a moderate level of controversy actually decreases the likelihood of high engagement.

So how do you determine which type of controversy is right for your brand?

Remember that all of your marketing efforts support a consistent image, and controversial content is no exception. Not every brand is edgy, so you’ll want to figure out what your audience wants before moving forward with any polarizing idea. Below are a few questions you’ll want to answer pre-production:

  • Does your audience expect controversy from you? This isn’t necessarily a yes or no question; instead, you want to figure out whether or not your audience is looking for something different. Have you seen a dip in traffic, for instance, on your blog? This could be an indicator that your content is becoming too predictable.
  • Have your competitors done anything controversial before, and if so, did it work for them? If you’re not ready to take the plunge into controversial waters, see what your competitors have put out there. Tying back in the Abodo campaign, although some brands within the real estate vertical might think they’re only limited to conservative content, the massive amount of engagement from the P.C. campaign prove otherwise.  
  • Is the proposed content authentic? Your brand shouldn’t produce something to play devil’s advocate simply for shock value–if you voice opinions you don’t hold, for instance, understand that you will be held accountable to them later. To avoid this mess later on, you should simply let the content speak for itself.

With so much information readily available to audiences across the web, some brands don’t have the luxury to take a conservative approach to content marketing for every campaign–particularly if their goal is to generate high levels of awareness. By offering authentic, balanced, and somewhat surprising content through a controversial campaign, your brand can invite engagement from both familiar faces as well as new audiences–a strategic move that will bring you a whole new level of exposure.

Have you ventured into the world of controversial content? Share what other tips and tricks would you recommend in the comments below!