Marketers are always looking to attract eyeballs. They implement many different strategies and tactics that in some cases cross the line into unacceptable territory - it’s a fine line between attraction and distraction. Experienced marketers generally have a handle on this, but they cannot please everyone. It’s the dissatisfaction among the few, or in some cases the many, that causes the controversy. Today, there are more mediums to push out advertising, and so it is expected that as volume of advertising increases, so will the number of controversial ads. But what makes an ad controversial?
Although there have been controversial marketing campaigns that have used drugs, violence, or racism to convey a message, sex has always been the one tried and true approach. Sex and the portrayal of women as sex objects is still controversial, and still raises flags when the line is crossed – even though that line has moved closer to the extreme.
Historically, marketing controversy has come at the expense of women and how they are portrayed. Using sexy women to sell jeans, yogurt, online gambling, and even alcohol have been common in advertising for quite some time. Marketing brand name products with the use of women as sex objects has been the typical “go-to” for marketers. Yet, despite the long tenure, every so often an objection is made.
The controversy is sometimes intentional or inadvertent. Controversy does get extra play in the media, and so some marketers intentionally play it out to create a ripple effect on their campaign – make it so controversial that everyone talks about the ad and not just the product. This strategy can be effective or damaging. The line is too fine for universal application. This decision usually requires marketers to understand the market, their product, their intentions, and the implications of crossing the line.
Most marketing experts have a good understanding of where this line lies and how best to dance around it, assuming they aren’t tempted to cross it. The final decision as to which strategy to use is entirely a one-off, case-by-case scenario.
But when the flag is raised, the ripple effect is out of control. No one person or entity has a handle on it, which is what poses as the risk for marketers. Some have panned out, and others haven’t. Here’s a list of five notable examples of ‘sexy’ backfiring
5 Golf Digest And Pauline Gretzky
When Golf Digest published its cover and feature on the semi-dressed Paulina Gretzky immediately before the first women's major of the season, the LPGA and its devote followers expressed utter disgust. The magazine cover features Gretzky wearing very little and revealing plenty.
The golf magazine's controversial decision has escalated, with the commissioner of the LPGA, Mike Whan, voicing his critical opinion, saying, "We're disappointed and frustrated by the editorial direction… if a magazine called Golf Digest is interested in showcasing females in the game, yet consistently steers away from the true superstars who've made history over the last few years, something is clearly wrong.”
Here’s what’s more interesting, Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of the ice hockey legend Wayne, is not even a golfer. She has recently taken up golf and is the fiancee of professional golfer Dustin Johnson. Some of the top female golfers have already expressed their annoyance with the magazine, pointing out that many successful female golfers haven’t been cover worthy - Inbee Park won three straight major championships in 2013. Stacy Lewis became the first American to win the Rolex Player of the Year since 1994, and Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko set historical benchmarks. None of them made the cover.
Jerry Tarde, Golf Digest's editor in chief, defended their decision by suggesting that Paulina’s high profile in the golf celebrity scene today makes hers a compelling story to tell.
4 Kraft's Sexy Salad Dressing
Kraft, one of the world’s largest food producers and distributors, was at the heart of controversy recently for its use of a male dressed in nothing but an apron to advertise salad dressing.
The Zesty Guy, as he is known, is basting a turkey with Kraft’s salad dressing. The ad is part of mini-series of other Zesty Guy commercials, including one titled “Slap the Dough”. The use of innuendo is all too obvious. Cleverly positioned, but obvious.
The ad was criticized by conservative group One Million Moms, which called the ad “disgusting,” but criticism hasn’t slowed down Kraft or kept it from using the Zesty Guy. He is a full-fledged marketing campaign with enough steam to influence other companies from jumping on the “sexy hunk” bandwagon.
If salad dressings can be pimped with sexy half-naked men, then what would stop any other household brand from adopting the sex-bomb approach?
3 Roxy Surf Gear And Lingerie
Roxy, a surfboard and apparel company has been under criticism for one of its latest ad campaigns, which features a young female surfer in a YouTube promo.
The video features a blonde female surfer in lingerie, and asks viewers to guess the identity of the attractive blonde. The company faced most of the criticism via social media, as consumers called out the ad for sexualising female boarders. The company intended to raise awareness for the upcoming Roxy Pro Biarritz competition.
Unfortunately for Roxy, the attempt backfired, and the company has been forced to proceed with damage control. Many of the critics are in fact Roxy supporters, which makes it all the worse. Roxy later released a statement on the company Facebook page responding to the community’s complaints by stating that it believed all athletes are naturally beautiful, in and out of the water, and that people certainly don’t have to be sexy to be an athlete. The video has been viewed over two million times since its release.
2 Go Daddy Commercials
Go Daddy has been the poster boy for the use of sexy women in marketing campaigns. From Super Bowl ads to online videos, GoDaddy.com has always relied on sex appeal to drive traffic. The company traditionally made commercials in-house using a low budget and a “hot girl” to drive awareness. Despite the criticism from conservative groups, the ploy worked, and today the company has made a name for itself, especially in NASCAR, and even took on sexy racer Danica Patrick as its spokesperson.
Recently, the company outsourced its marketing to Deutsch Inc., to create ads for a new marketing campaign. Deustch Inc said the GoDaddy would move away from the “to see more skin, click here” type of advertising that encouraged people to go to the Go Daddy website, but also said that it would still commit to the use of Go Daddy girls in future advertisements.
Since the company has matured from an online start-up to an online mainstay, it’s expected that the company will focus marketing efforts on its actual product.
1 JC Penney And Stupid Girls
JC Penney is no stranger to criticism. It have been baked on several occasions, including the time it released a t-shirt that said, “I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.”
In addition to poor t-shirt tagline choices, the large clothing retailer launched an ad campaign that offended many groups and consumers. It was a 30-second video featuring ESPN commentator, Kenny Mayne, discussing society's collective hatred for clothing advertisements. The ad featured Van Heusen apparel, but also includes the eighteen-year-old Phoebe Cates' legendary Fast Times at Ridgemont High pool scene. Mayne goes on to say “if you look at these smart fashion choices from Van Heusen, we're going to show you this,” referring to the video.
The ad was ridiculed by many advertising agencies, consumers, and conservative groups. The large retailer’s advertising agency, AOR Saatchi & Saatchi, took a huge risk using Mayne, a middle-aged sports broadcasting figure, and even bigger risk with its use of a half-naked teenage girl. The once very dry brand is now trying to lure consumers with its use of controversial advertising ploys.