Is controversial advertising no longer a bad thing? As a matter of fact, it might be part of the plan.

May 16, 2011

Dying for your business…

Recently, a billboard went up for A&E’s gruesome but popular new series, The Walking Dead. For those unawares, the show is about dead people returning to life to feed on the living, aka Zombies. In this case, the board went up alongside a funeral care business, prompting countless media commentary on the “unfortunate” placement. It wasn’t just the local media that was provoked but all across America stories and pictures ran –sometimes negatively, mostly humorously- detailing the “unfortunate” juxtaposition of message and location.

After which, of course, the billboard company promptly issued an apology, calling it human error and an unfortunate mistake, and took down the ad.

Unfortunate? In one day I saw this image in my morning paper, in two of the blogs I read and on the TV news at night. That’s not tragedy, folks; that’s a windfall. For the price of one billboard, A&E got more coverage than they ever would have imagined for their show without paying a dime. And since it was editorial coverage, not advertorial, chances are great that viewers of it were actively engaged as opposed to benign.

And yes, while it may seem an unfortunate event for the funeral home, I’m betting they benefited from all the attention as well. Frankly, I’m not sure that’s even a consideration anymore…

Whether they or we like it or not, social media has broken down barriers, influencing our culture profoundly. We are no longer as shy about awkward moments. On the contrary we seem to get off on them. What once was considered embarrassing is now considered entertaining, interesting and provocative. Advertising is often the catalyst for this perfect storm. Outdoor is usually the touchstone.


In the above example, a health spa put up a somewhat risqué billboard advertising its waxing services. Someone inevitably complained but rather than take down the board the company sniped it with a URL: where folks could vote on whether the original ad was offensive or not!

My opinion: I think the whole thing was contrived to create buzz for the spa. The new paradigm suggests we don’t apologize for controversy but do it more.

Special note: This post will be part of my presentation to fepe: International Federation of Outdoor Advertising in Madrid.


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