The most controversial marketing stunts of all time (that worked)

People love finding an excuse to be angry at something. “Social media rage” is a real thing, and according to European Research, social media actually teaches people to be increasingly outraged over time because the platform is designed to reward this behaviour.

Well, the marketing universe has found a way to make big bucks out of this in the form of Controversial Marketing.

Controversial marketing, also known as shock advertising, is when a marketer breaks the rules or norms and violates the personal values of the audience. This can go from funny to downright insulting. 

However, the result is all the same – to generate some intense discussion around your brand and stir some controversial attention.

With shock marketing, attention is pretty much guaranteed – social media hashtags allow your brand to go viral extremely quickly, but the sheer amount of shares and comments create a ripple effect – after all, if something makes you angry, it’s natural to just share it with your friends. 

There are some very real risks associated with controversial marketing, however – it can take away the attention from your brand, for example, if you are shocking your audience for the sake of it. Furthermore, they can be somewhat explosive to your brand image. Remember that awkward time Pepsi made Kendall Jenner the star of the Black Lives Matter campaign?

Sure, it generated a discussion, but Pepsi also had to issue an apology after becoming such a laughing stock that even Amazon ended up parodying the ad in a TV show.

In this article, we will explore three incredibly effective shock marketing stunts that worked, as well as 3 that failed miserably and forced the companies to apologise.

3 controversial marketing stunts that worked...

“Like a girl” – Always

Who would have thought that a campaign aimed at teenage girls would have grown to be one of the most famous examples of shock advertising?

Such a simple sentence too. Three words evoke powerful emotion.

This campaign by feminine hygiene products retailer Always aimed to tell teenage girls to keep their confidence throughout puberty.

The ad twisted the sentence “like a girl”, which is often used as an insult, and turned it into a positive message that encourages confidence.

When did “like a girl” become an insult, the advertisement asks? 

Wait… How would that be controversial?

It’s worth noting that this ad came from 2014 when talking about topics such as menstruation was taboo. So it’s impressive that this ad allowed the retailer to get in the spotlight without even talking about the products they are selling.

Since then, the ad was seen as empowering and won several awards. The video currently has over 60 million views on YouTube.

On top of that, Always’ research found out that 94% of viewers agreed that the campaign inspired confidence with girl, and the vast majority of women and men (70% and 60% respectively) agreed that it changed their perception of the phrase “like a girl”.

The ad reached some popular celebrities such as Gloria Steinem, who retweeted it. Always received well over one thousand media placement and 4 billion views overall.

Takeaway: controversial marketing sometimes simply delivers a good message.


I have always been a huge fan of KFC’s marketing department, but their PR specialists also deserve a shoutout.

Although KFC deep fryers are notorious for also doubling as saunas for rodents, they also saw a serious lack of chicken during what was then known as The Great Chicken Shortage of 2018.

Ok, maybe I may have made that name up, but the facts persist: KFC had no chicken because they had issues with their new chicken supplier, DHL.

KFC decided to apologise for this fiasco with a full-page ad in a variety of publications. Social media users LOVED the Colonel’s potty mouth.  

“Brilliant marketing in the middle of a storm”, says a Twitter user in response to this apology. “Marketing at its most creative”, said another.

Despite the fact that people should have gone crazy over a chicken-less chicken shop, a single controversial print ad somehow defused a crazy situation. The hashtag #ChickenCrisis hit 56,000 tweets during that time period, which gave KFC extra visibility. 

According to Marketing Week, purchase intent amongst customers didn’t change at all despite the issue – turning this PR campaign into a huge success. 

Takeaway: when it’s obviously a joke, you can get away with controversial language. It may even be appreciated.

“The best men can be” – Gillette

A brand aimed specifically at men shouldn’t be attacking its own target audience… right?
Well. Gillette took that advice and ignored it completely.

The video, titled “the best men can be”, depicts negative behaviour among men of all ages with clear depictions of sexual harassment, violence and general harassment towards women. The video also uses footage of videos created during the #MeToo movement, including Terry Crews’ testification on sexual assault.

“Never realised how bad I am and how I need to apologise for being born male”, states a YouTube comment under the video, which has been seen well over 4 million times since its release.

The controversial ad was received negatively and was quickly criticised on social media and it was accused of “emasculating” men. 

British journalist Piers Morgan described the campaign as orchestrated by radical feminists who are “driving a war against masculinity”.

Not all of it was bad, however.

Gillette received praise from several leading figures of the #MeToo movement and other noteworthy people including Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, who described the ad as “pro-humanity”.

Although opinions were divided on the campaign, which immediately went viral and now has 3 million views on YouTube, overall, it seems that feedback was positive encouraging 65% more purchase intent.

Takeaway: people get offended when you highlight an issue. But isn’t that what “controversial” should be?

… And 3 that didn’t!

“White is purity” – NIVEA

Apparently, Nivea executives haven’t been on the internet long enough to know that saying “White is better” may be perceived as a slightly racist and white supremacist.

The ad was quickly pulled off socials.

The damage was done, however, and Nivea was targeted by Internet trolls.

Although the official stats cannot be recovered since the ad was deleted, BBC states that the image was widely shared by accounts heavily associated with white supremacism and the alt-right movement.

Nivea had to issue an official apology, and nothing good came out of this ad.

Takeaway: don’t be controversial for the sake of it

“Goalkeepers starve thousands of kids to death” – Mastercard

Apparently, it’s considered “morally wrong” to only feed your children whenever your favourite football player scores a goal.

Someone in the Mastercard higher-ups definitely thought that it was a good idea to give Latin American and Caribbean kids some meals whenever Messi or Neymar scored a goal during any official tournament from 2018 until March 2020.

Maybe the intentions were good, no doubt about it. However, the general Internet user saw it as a big company mocking a huge crisis and “waiting until some players scored a goal to feed some starving kids”.

“So are goalkeepers responsible for children going hungry?”, asked a Twitter user in response to this horrible PR stunt. 

Takeaway: don’t gamble with people’s lives for publicity

“Stay safe, stay apart” – McDonald's

The year is 2020. A deadly virus rampages through the world and locks down society as a whole.

Toilet paper becomes a scarce commodity to be fought over.

A bunch of celebrities sing “imagine” and become the laughingstock of the general internet. For some reason, a guy and his tiger are the most popular discussion topic online.

And during this uncertain time, Mcdonald’s decides that it was a good idea to take the “stay safe, stay apart” advice put out by the CDC and turn it into a terrible PR stunt by installing their iconic arches separately into some of their US restaurants. Ronald’s PR department justified it by saying it was to promote a message of “solidarity”.

The second this hit the internet, people weren’t exactly ok with it. Let’s just say they weren’t lovin’ it.

“Solidarity my ***”, “this is absolutely pathetic” and “it’s a terrible idea” are just three of the thousands of negative comments that followed this ad.

Takeaway: know the thin line between highlighting a current issue and exploiting it for marketing.

Wrapping up

What sets apart a controversial advertisement from one that is flat-out wrong?

The ability to provoke without insulting.

As you have seen, the most successful, yet controversial ads were those that highlighted an issue without belittling or ridiculing it. Those that have failed were mocking a cause people stand for. 

Gillette provoked men but at the same time highlighted a very important issue with men in the twenty-first century. Mastercard gamified starving kids. 

While there’s no playbook on how to make a marketing stunt, it’s clear that the line between controversial and insulting is very thin, but also very existent. And those who can harness it have managed to shake up the internet and reap some serious rewards from it. However, those who missed the point had to kneel down and apologise for it.


  • Controversial marketing is all about making an audience angry
  • You should ideally attack or twist a political or social issue without attacking the audience directly
  • Good shock marketers understand the difference between controversial and immoral.
  • Controversial doesn’t mean offensive: You aren’t attacking or insulting your audience
  • Controversial PR stunts are incredibly useful to generate buzz around your products
  • Avoid anything that may be perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc…
  • Don’t downplay a current issue. If anything, exaggerate it.
  • Don’t mock people’s struggles.
  • Great shock marketing starts from understanding your audience well.
  • Good shock marketing provokes but doesn’t insult

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