This past week, a 26 year-old song by Dire Straits became a top-seller in Canada. “Money For Nothing” found itself once again on the charts as people downloaded the song in droves after Canada’s broadcasting content regulator issued a ruling effectively banning airplay of the unedited version of the song. The issue at hand is Mark Knopfler’s use of the word “faggot” three times in the song, which the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled was in violation of their codes of conduct.
The vast majority of people – gay, straight, and otherwise – were perplexed by the ruling, and many of them instantly went to iTunes and paid 99 cents to hear what all of the fuss was about.
Dire Straits hasn’t had a significant hit since the early 90s, and the band broke up in 1995. Today, after years of relative obscurity, they are once again on the charts thanks to the power of a good controversy.
Controversy, in certain circumstances, can be a great thing for a brand.
Throughout the years, Calvin Klein has been the subject of controversy because of their sexually suggestive advertising. Their ads have not only featured revealing and suggestive images, but they have also blurred the lines of age, sexual orientation, and even gender identity. They have consistently been the target of complaints for their ads, yet they continue to be a very successful clothing brand. The complaints only serve to make their brand identity stronger.
Red Bull has been beaten up many times over. In 2009, Red Bull exported from Austria was discoverd to contain trace amounts of cocaine. A 2008 study reported that drinking even one can of Red Bull had negative impact on blood coagulation and raised cardiovascular risks. The drink was even banned in France, Norway, and Denmark, although the bans have since been lifted in Norway and Denmark. Today, despite it all, Red Bull is the most popular energy drink in the world.
On the other hand, the list of brands that have been damaged a great deal by controversy is long. Tiger Woods. British Petroleum. Union Carbide. Gary Glitter. Certainly nothing good can come to any brand that destroy’s the environment (BP), kills people (Union Carbide), lies to people (Tiger Woods), and hurts children (Gary Glitter).
So when does controversy benefit the brand?
1. When the controversy speaks to the brand’s image. Calvin Klein fashions are all about sex, so generating controversy over sexually-suggestive ads is perfectly in-line with the brand’s image. Red Bull is most popular with young, edgy consumers who thrive on danger. Controversy that positions Red Bull as dangerous is perfect for the brand’s image.
2. When the controversy doesn’t (directly) hurt anyone. The impact of hearing Dire Straits say “faggot” isn’t instantly measurable and is certainly up for debate. Viewing suggestive Calvin Klein ads might be detrimental to someone, but it is impossible to determine who and how. Red Bull has only been indirectly link to deaths such as a 2009 instance where a 21 year-old woman died after drinking four cans of Red Bull. But the drinks were mixed with alcohol, and it was later determined that she had a rare heart condition and epilepsy.
3. When the controversy is temporary. Soon we’ll all forget about “Money For Nothing” again. Calvin Klein ads will be taken down and new ones put up. Some future research will show that Red Bull is safe. For all of these brands, the controversies will come and go and come again. While controversy is good for each of these brands, it cannot be the only thing driving them forward. They can thrive on temporary controversy, but seldom can controversy form a brand’s primary directive.
Controversy, handled properly, can be a great thing for a brand. For the right brand at the right time, it can quickly help build brand identity, create excitement, raise awareness, and move product.