Visual Translation

Think like…Wait, What? Controversy and Product Sales

This seems like a case of ‘bad publicity is better than no publicity’. This ad was posted on the Bic South Africa Facebook. Even though the company has apologised, the truth is we are all still talking about it and that may be exactly what the company intended.

I have been noticing lately a new marketing trend where a company appears to use a heated debate to promote a product. It goes like this: Take topic that is currently the subject of debates and use it as a form of representing your product’s identity. The aim is for the ‘debate’ itself to push the product to stand out using controversy to get attention. The ad says: Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss” and to add insult to injury: “#Happy woman’s day”. Let’s  take a moment to think about the cleverness of this strategy. Using the misogynist text is guaranteed to stir up debate and when this happens, the company or product will be ‘at the center’ of the conversation (let’s not even talk about where the phrase originally comes form). To place a product or brand on the negative side of a controversy sounds crazy, I know. But bear with me.

Why would this be a strategy?
Remember, these days, it is considered successful advertising if people are talking about a product on social media. To be ‘visible’ you want to be at the centre of the conversations; you need people talking about your product or company even if the conversation is controversial. In fact, these days controversy sells. The words in this ad are almost guaranteed to infuriate many, who will comment ‘outraged’ and share the ad as evidence, causing it to move quickly to the top of the discussions on social media sites, newspapers, etc. By taking part in the outraged discussions, we bring the brand into our feeds, increasing their visibility. We are doing their advertising for them while we discuss the incident ad nauseam, further trivialising the real feminist issues

But why would a company make such a bold move? It makes no sense I hear you say. Isn’t it risky to get on the bad side of the public?

Let’s face it, ‘feminism’ has become a ‘dirty word’, people have grown somewhat tired of the whole single-sided feminist debate and currently the conversation includes examples of how women have used feminism as an excuse to constantly berate men. Admittedly, some feminists interpret ‘equality’ to mean arbitrarily dishing out to men what has been dished out to women in the past. Sadly, these actions have served to divert the focus of the conversations away from the real issues that women are still struggling with today. But this is not the point I want to address in this post. Rather, what I want is to highlight how the ‘feminist’ topic, which has the capacity to stir up very heated debates, might just be the ideal tool to promote a product or brand.

In this case, since this debate has two strong valid sides, there is really no harm for the company to position themselves on one side of the debate and then simply apologise and take a neutral position. Basically, they start the debate, then apologise wholeheartedly and step back to watch the ad circulate around the world. They did say: ‘Sorry, we didn’t mean it” and we all love sincerity and appreciate online debate, so, no harm done. It’s a win win situation. Except for the irony that these debates occur online where we don’t have need for pens.


Image: handout/Facebook

Text: Mitzi Pomenta


Read a related article by the Guardian.