Matthew Keegan
Jun 5, 2024

Are controversial ads really such a bad thing?

Following Apple's recent 'Crush' ad controversy and Bumble's fumble, Campaign explores whether or not there is merit in an ad that is criticised but still garners attention, as opposed to going unnoticed.

'Crush' for Apple's iPad Pro
'Crush' for Apple's iPad Pro

"The destruction of the human experience, courtesy of Silicon Valley."

That was the cutting tweet from actor Hugh Grant in response to Apple's recent iPad 'Crush' ad, a now infamous 60-second spot that showed objects, including musical instruments and books, being crushed by a hydraulic press.

The video was meant to demonstrate how the device’s many features has been compressed into the latest iPad, its thinnest ever. But it sparked an instant backlash with critics saying the ad actually shows how tech is stifling creativity rather than encouraging it. 

In this instance, if anything was 'crushed', even momentarily, it was Apple's reputation

"Apple's '1984' MacIntosh commercial is widely regarded as one of the greatest ads of all time, setting a new standard for advertising as an art form, with more iconic ads to follow," says Laura Kleiman, strategic partnerships manager, Bench Media. "So when their most recent iPad crush campaign fell short, the backlash was brutal. It does little to reassure loyalists that they are still on top of their game, which is a very important part of Apple's DNA."

The crushing backlash aside, Apple's latest iPad ad undoubtedly achieved one thing, and that was provoking a reaction. To date, the ad has been viewed around 53 million times and received blanket coverage across media. It even prompted a swift response from Apple's biggest rival, Samsung, who quickly hit back with its own ‘Uncrush’ video ad, stating, “We would never crush creativity”. Although Samsung's response ad was cheeky, it didn't cause as much of a stir as Apple's. 

It begs the question: Is there merit in an ad that is criticised but still garners attention and sparks debate? As opposed to an ad that goes completely unnoticed.

"Our biggest risk in this industry is getting ignored, not getting rejected. Rejection means at least people care," says Gonzalo Olivera, managing partner at MullenLowe Singapore. "However, in my opinion brands can miss the mark when they say something that’s false or offend a specific community. That’s something brands should avoid and it’s only negative."

Generally speaking, ads that miss the mark and generate controversy exist on a spectrum. 

At one end of the spectrum, the controversy is intentional and in-line with the brand’s beliefs. Take Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, an ad Nike knew would court controversy because it took a stance on a divisive issue. Nike released the advert, titled ‘Dream Crazy’, in 2018. It featured the former NFL quarterback and the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.” 

In 2016, Kaepernick started to kneel for the pre-game national anthem in protest at racial injustice in the United States. Despite the negative coverage and dip in Nike stock that the ad generated, the brand decided to stick with rolling out the campaign because they took a stand in culture. The strategic move paid off in spades, with Nike stock eventually reaching an all-time high, and a 31% sales increase. 

Further along the spectrum is Bumble. The dating site's recent ad completely misread the room to the point of being offensive. Bumble found itself on the receiving end of a mighty backlash after their supposedly humorous ‘anti-abstinence’ campaign tanked across the board, causing outrage amongst the very communities Bumble has championed since its launch.

"If your objective is to spark a debate, and your creative process has followed that objective, then your ad being criticised is great. It’s done its job, and likely earned you a great deal of attention you’ve not had to pay for," says Nick Zonnios, director of consumer at Icon Agency.
"But if the opposite is true, and you’ve been called out for not being in touch with the audience you’re trying to engage or for being offensive, it’s not a great place to be."
Is all attention good?
It's been estimated that some 5.3 trillion display ads are shown online every year. That's a lot of ads. Vying for attention has become a near blood sport for brands and advertisers competing for consumer eyeballs. 

"Brands are being skipped, scrolled, drowned out, blocked or left behind by culture," says Huiwen Tow, head of strategy at Virtue APAC. "In an age of bots and ad blockers, maximising attention is vitally important. Attention metrics are a better predictor of actual sales outcomes, than viewability alone."

However, Tow is adamant that the starting point needs to be of genuine intention, not simply maximising attention. 

"In a climate of short-termism, there is no shortage of performative work taking cheap shots at fame. For example, the recent ad by Bombay Shaving Company, whose desperate and insensitive attempt to get into the news, ended up further exacerbating an online bullying situation for a young Indian woman, whose only mistake was topping her state exams,” she says.

Given this example and others, it's pretty safe to conclude that not all attention is good attention. Sometimes negative attention can be useful, but for the most part, it’s not. 

"The old adage that any publicity is good publicity is bullshit," says Zonnios. "Some is good. Some is bad. And it should be abundantly clear which is which."

That said, there will always be exceptions, such as Nike in the previously mentioned example, and occasionally controversy is limited to a vocal but small number of people.

"But it’s safe to say that if your brand or product is at the centre of a cultural shitstorm, it’s highly unlikely that it’ll inspire a positive outcome," adds Zonnios. 

Can sustained negative publicity erode brand trust and loyalty?

Optus, one of Australia’s largest telecommunications companies, faced a significant backlash following a massive data breach in 2022. The breach was bad enough, but the botched PR response and ensuing sustained negative publicity have severely impacted customer loyalty and tarnished Optus’s brand image. 

But perhaps the most egregious example of self-inflicted brand degradation continues to unfold in real time on the platform itself—Elon Musk’s X.

"Not content with trashing a brand with an injection of politics and removal of meaningful moderation, Musk then binned the one thing he had left—the brand itself," says Luke Holland, head of strategic communications at Think HQ. "X continues to haemorrhage cash and users, and is now viewed by most companies and users as a platform of occasional necessity, not choice." 

'X', formerly known as Twitter, has attracted sustained negative publicity since Elon Musk took over.

From these and countless other examples, it's clear that sustained negative publicity can chip away at a brand’s trust and loyalty.

"The crucial term here is 'sustained'," says Melantha Tan, strategy director at We Are Social Singapore. "While some negative buzz might flare up and then fade quickly, it’s the prolonged negative chatter that really starts to erode trust. This is where the real damage can happen, as ongoing negative attention puts brand trust and loyalty on the line."

How best to deal with a backlash?

While negative publicity can erode brand trust and loyalty overnight, the good news is that pretty much everyone loves a comeback.

But of course, in the event of a backlash, each case needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. 

"Ideally, you would identify during the ideation and production process that the ad was going to be controversial and scenario-plan for it, and if things did go awry, you would act on the plan," says Zonnios. "But if it catches you off-guard, which given Apple’s [iPad Crush] response, I suspect it did, then you move quickly to respond. 

"In this instance, Apple made the right call," adds Zonnios. "It responded swiftly, pulled the ad and took the air out of the story rather than letting it linger and turn into something bigger than it had already become."

Similarly, when Bumble recently found themselves in hot water after their ‘anti-abstinence’ ad sparked a major backlash, their crisis comms response was textbook. 

"Ads were pulled at pace, and their apology was both self-reflective and fulsome, and backed by creative pushing on socials to maximise eyeballs," says Holland. "The surrounding debates around consent and sexual autonomy may not have been planned, but Bumble were ahead of the curve with their donation of now-empty billboards to domestic abuse charities."

As in both cases with Apple and Bumble, getting on the front foot seems to be key to successfully handling a backlash. More times than not, brands can overcome any negative feedback, but how quickly is probably the biggest influencer on success.   

"Swift and sincere communication is always the answer," says Kleiman. "Taking responsibility and corrective measures in the short term, whilst building long-term strategies to rebuild trust in the future."


Campaign Asia

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