Today I learned that American Apparel — best known for it’s sexually provocative advertising and its controversial founder — has filed for voluntary bankruptcy protection. Business Insider makes the case that their downfall was becoming less provocative. This got me thinking about the difficult decision to take a marketing risk in the first place.

You might choose a safe route from the get go. Or you could throw caution to the wind. Sometimes you don’t know that you’ve taken a risk and suddenly you’re marketing is the centre of a controversy. It’s helpful to have the pros and cons in mind when evaluation a marketing idea and whether it’s worth taking the risk.

PRO: Free press
If you’ve been surprised by a media controversy you’ve created – don’t panic! This might be a great opportunity. Free press doesn’t get the street cred it deserves. Advertising isn’t cheap and a venue for conversation is valuable. 

Last month we talked about a marketing campaign for the town of Okotoks that became the butt of many media jokes – offending some for sure. However, the town took it in stride and turned the coverage in it’s favour.  

CON: Your brand becomes associated with a controversy
Since your brand is everything about how you are perceived by your audience – your staff, your associates, suppliers, existing and potential customers – it’s worth being careful about what messaging you put into the world. Make sure your material reflects your brand values.

PRO: You’re memorable
If your goal is awareness – for more people to see your message – a little risk taking might be just the ticket. 

We did a campaign in the late 2000s that was meant to get people talking about an important issue that was largely being ignored. To draw attention to poverty in the Yukon and access to essential services we plastered the sidewalks of Whitehorse with the message “You don’t belong here.” Some folks were really angry about it. The thing is – those affluent sets of lungs were exactly who needed the message most; they got to understand the anger that impoverished Yukoners feel all the time. And they started taking about it.

CON: You’ve created more work for yourself
Managing a controversy is more work than not having one to begin with. It’s helpful to be one step ahead of any controversy you create – but even when it comes as a surprise, responding in a timely matter can make or break the outcome of an outrage. 

PRO: Getting a reaction is an opportunity for dialogue
Today’s successful brands leverage dialogue and transparency. Being able to listen, engage and either strengthen or pivot your position will make your brand more agile.

So if you’ve made a risqué move and find yourself in a controversy, take a strategic approach and start by compartmentalizing your priorities. Think about who is angry and what impact they have on your audience and the goal of the communications piece in question. Take time to internalize the feedback you’re getting (try to get more if you can) and consider what it says about your brand values and if you need to pivot your marketing strategy or not. Whatever you do, don’t panic and react! There’s more than one solution to every situation. 




by Jodie

AA were seen as an ethical alternative in a time when most clothing was being made in sweatshops – but when Dov Charney was accused of sexual harassment a lot of these ethically minded consumers turned to other providers. It had the unfortunate side effect of giving their marketing efforts new meaning once the accusations were made public.

AA still have incredibly provocative marketing materials… but there’s an ick factor associated with them now. When it has the optics of being a progressive and sex-positive organization – the marketing is sexy. When it has the optics of being demeaning or degrading – the marketing is sleazy.

I think it’s important to know your audience and to have the optics of your business or organization match the values that they expect from you. If Dov Charney had a better crises communications and AA a better marketing response they may have had better chances salvaging their reputation.

They rolled a hard six and thought that more consumers would be intrigued at Dov Charney’s rogue entrepreneurial style than in his inappropriate sexual escapades. He was eventually removed from day to day operations of the company, but the damage was already done and resulted in store closures and financial troubles.

I think of how quickly Apple released a statement following the uproar of Dr. Dre’s battery of Dee Barnes becoming known during the release of Straight Outta Compton. They saw potential for consumers to see a disconnect between their perceived values and the actions of one of their executives and made a thoughtful and well-crafted statement regarding the controversy.

I agree that brand values need to be at the core of every interaction for a company (from employees at the ground level, to marketing and even CEO behaviour) and AA is a textbook example of why that’s important.

On another note, the guerrilla campaign for “You Don’t Belong Here” was definitely in the summer of 2010 (or was it 2011!). I remember our shop guys and gals having to hand cut the lettering for the stencils!


by Eleanor

Great insight and information to add to the AA story Jodie. Their role in reclaiming local manufacturing is inspiring and i have often wondered why we don’t see it in their marketing as much as we do in editorial content. Certainly it relates to what their various target audiences care about on a day to day basis. On the scandalous angle, I was daydreaming about AA’s relationship with sexuality and asked myself, “what would happen if AA started promoting sex education in US schools?” It could be an incredibly positive - though still controversial- role for them and their audience.


by Jodie

I love the Sex Ed angle. Hah.

Great idea!


Most Read Articles