Hee Haw, Hee Haw

We have all seen or heard stories about controversial ad campaigns on television, radio, and the internet. Some are quickly pulled from public view in reactionary fashion; others are purposefully left to survive in defiance. Universally, very few of these campaigns are easily forgotten. Controversy can work in a positive light, going viral and spreading a brand message over a wide audience, but can also heavily damage a brand’s reputation as a result of poor public perception.

Not all controversial campaigns involve graphic themes, shocking imagery, or ideas conceived in bad taste; something as simple as a single poorly chosen word can be equally unpleasant. Hip retailer Urban Outfitters recently held a sale event the company chose to name the ‘Big Ass Sale.’ While on the surface, the name of the sale might seem to fit with the brand’s young and edgy identity and appeal to its target demographic, it is simultaneously off-putting to others.

The problem goes far beyond ‘the word’ itself; the company’s website featured images of a large tattooed man cannonballing shirtless into a swimming pool – hardly the best means of connote trendy clothing and accessories (he’s not wearing any). Whether someone seeing these ads is offended is only part of the issue. The overall campaign seems dreadfully conceived, and Urban Outfitters is unwittingly alienating potential new customers.

There is a big difference between a deliberately controversial or guerilla campaign and this type of promotion that is intended to push the brand forward by any means necessary. The company surely means no harm, and probably see themselves as ‘playing it on the edge’ to appeal to their customers, but intent doesn’t make a controversial campaign a smart idea. In this age, every brand is heavily scrutinized; it is crucial that marketing messages first filter through an organization’s values before going public and risking harm to the brand.

In this case, Urban Outfitters has come off as the donkey.

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