To create a controversial ad or play it safe…that is the question!

In today’s society where social media and viral videos are at the top of the marketing game, advertising campaigns must be able to break through the noise, grab your attention and create a buzz! Every year, people around the world complain about ads, taking offence to the messages intended merely to sell products. On that same note, it is often times these ads that go viral, where millions of eyeballs are stimulated by the “shock advertising”.

Risk and Reward - Words on Dice

It’s riding that fine line and sometimes stepping over that line that is going to get the results you set out to achieve in the first place. Many advertisers adopt deliberately edgy themes either in order to generate media coverage or to target a particular demographic which is less sensitive. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to create something controversial to be successful but those that are willing to cross that line, can see big time results (if you play it right). Simply make sure you are not too far over that line or it’s going to turn into an epic fail that could destroy your business. It’s the risk versus reward where a big payoff is the goal. The three main reasons an ad may spark complaints are misleading information, sexual themes and gender stereotyping.

Over the past year, Kmart has been a big player when it comes to creating controversial ads that go viral. Look no further than “Ship Your Pants” or “Big Gas Savings”. The ads were playful and the virality behind them was simply amazing. They decided to kick things up a notch and go one step further in November when they released their risqué “Show Your Joe” spot for Joe Boxer. It was a mega hit on the social web and it wasn’t just because people liked it. There were a number of consumers outraged (mostly moms) calling the ad “filthy” and “offensive”. On the other side, there were many more calling it “genius” and “hilarious”, going as far as to name it the best ad of the season. Winner or loser, the ad received just shy of 17 million views and in any advertisers book, that’s a massive success! The spot has received 93,916 shares on social media, which in itself is an incredible achievement. Can you imagine what that would do for your brand?

Take a look at how Kmart’s three recent ads compare based on YouTube performance:

  • “Ship My Pants” — 20,344,698 views. 93,630 Likes and 3,790 Dislikes: 24.7 Likes for every Dislike.
  • “Big Gas Savings” — 6,250,945 views. 26,583 Likes and 1,312 Dislikes: 20.2 Likes for every Dislike
  • “Show Your Joe” — 16,779,213 views. 64,473 Likes and 3,932 Dislikes: 16.4 Likes for every Dislike.

When you isolate the numbers, Kmart hit a home run with all three of these ads. That being said, you also have to be very careful and have a game plan in place if things don’t work as planned. In response to the “Show Your Joe” spot, the company responded personally to each and every twitter user who showed displeasure with the raunchy ad by replying with the following message.

“We regret if you found it to be inappropriate. That was not our intent. We hope you’ll have a happy holiday.”

Was that necessary? Maybe not. But it likely put out a few fires and saved their customer service team a biggest mess down the road. Twitter is a beautiful thing.

So now that you have seen the videos and you have seen the results, does it pay to push the envelope? Do the numbers justify the inherent risk when releasing videos like this for the world to see?

Let’s turn to Advertising Benchmark Index as they judge an ad based on its effectiveness on the premise that advertising at its core, should pitch a product or service. There are a number of variables that come into play with ABI scores – message, call to action, likability, etc. It should be noted that virality is not a factor measured by ABI, which leads to the notion that an ad could garner a ton of earned media and reach without being a “good” ad. Interesting right?

We don’t have a clear indication on whether or not the Kmart ads actually led to conversions but it is safe to say they built incredible awareness at the top of the marketing funnel. The ad ranked poorly in terms of effectiveness by having the brand show up right at the end of the ad but the controversial nature made up for it.

Unruly Media measures the effectiveness of YouTube videos and unlike ABI, shareablity and virality do play a factor. According to their Viral Video Chart of the past year, the three Kmart videos appear at #5, #11 and #62 on the top 100. Pretty damn good for ads that aren’t considered to be “good” according to ABI. Controversial ads do attract eyeballs. (What shows up at the top of the Viral Video Chart? The Geico Hump Day ad…we love it!)

In concluding, what kind of ad most successfully drives conversion and revenues? It’s really hard to say. The “Show Your Joe” ad created the most buzz this year but as good as their ads have been in 2013, their sales are down suggesting that the ads have had no effect on making more money. With all this said, the ads are definitely helping Kmart build their brand and tell a different story than has been told in the past. If social media was the KPI (key performance indicator) on this campaign, the ads are doing exactly what they should, spiking social engagement.

Let’s put it this way, whether you liked the ad or not, you probably have been thinking more about Kmart in the past couple months or so than in the months prior to this ad coming out.

Are you willing to cross that line to create a buzz for your business or do you like to play things safe?