Business PR Strategy Tips

Can Controversial Publicity Still Serve Your Brand?

Posted by Deborah | April 28th, 2015 | 4 Responses


Doubtless you’ve heard the sentiment before – There’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The argument might suggest that any amount of column inches received for your brand is useful in terms of awareness and reaching the consumer consciousness.

But is it really a true statement?

The question has been thrown back into the spotlight in the last 24 hours over the strong reaction to Protein World’s latest campaign efforts.

Determined to encourage us all to get ‘beach body ready’, the company unveiled its bold yellow tube posters – featuring a bikini wearing slim model – and quickly became the target for criticism.

Those annoyed by the publicity tactic cited the company as having ‘body shamed’ women everywhere.

In fact, in very few hours since the posters first emerged, a petition had commenced and tens of thousands called for the images to be removed.

Headline writers and broadcasters, meanwhile, sprang into action.

Not only was this a story with lots of reaction, and stacks of social media comment to call on, but inevitably it also had a stand-out image to use in their column inches and airtime.

So, cue the reaction of the company’s marketing lead.

Does he run for cover, apologise, admit that the company has gone ‘too far’?

No – in fact, Richard Staveley, Head of Marketing for Protein World is reported saying “I think it’s fair to say we weren’t expecting this level of exposure….but it’s fantastic!”.

Even as the company was being branded as shameful, disrespectful (among other comments), the marketing lead is saying the whole publicity creation from the campaign has been nothing short of ‘fantastic’.

What then, does this tell us about PR and a willingness to occasionally court controversy or fly in the face of potential critics?
Is it a tactic worth taking for the sake of column inches?
And how easily do you recover and turn negative to positive?
Clearly, there’s no hard and fast answer on this.

Some brands may find that some good old ‘tongue in cheek’ PR can generate the odd critic or opponent, and still come out shining in the eyes of the majority.

We all, after all, have a different level of humour and a naturally different perspective on material we digest.

However, there’s a big gulf between tongue in cheek, and pushing the boundaries on issues of clear sensitivity.

Most likely, Protein World will recover quickly from this particular tactical fallout with some timely commentary around respecting women of all shapes and sizes and being aware of sensitivity around body image – but that’s not to say it doesn’t ought to give serious thought to how the campaign reached the public domain without more careful thought around delicacies of opinion.

Here’s a few thoughts on ensuring you’re PR and marketing campaign is right for your audience:


  • Consider who you’re reaching. What ticks their box. What are they ‘sensitive to’?
  • Do you need to counsel more opinion before you let something fly publicly?  Step outside of your own company to gain honest perspective.
  • What will you do if the PR tactic receives intention you hadn’t planned?
    Do you have key messaging in place around the campaign – does it help ‘explain’ your tactic?
  • Put your customer target group first, not merely the PR-hunger of your brand (consumers lose loyalty quickly if they feel duped!).


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4 Responses to Can Controversial Publicity Still Serve Your Brand?

  • JP says:

    Nice commentary DW, personally I think it’s laughable that the public expect a brand like this to post an ‘average’ (read as ‘overweight’) woman to represent the dream they are selling … (now, where did I put my tin hat!?)

    • Deborah says:

      That’s the current conflict in marketing I think. We’re all very aware of how inappropriate certain material could be perceived to be, but those at the heart of their brand also know what they’re target market are more likely to be lured by, or will view as aspirational. Tough call. I can see more cases like this coming in for public scrutiny. From a personal perspective, i do think it’s great that the debate around body image continues to get air time and that everyone is going to have to think harder about their actions and intentions.

  • Rageenee Hope says:

    Personally I don’t believe the negative publicity has damaged this brand. The market they are targeting aspires to their messaging, so unless there are legal implications, I don’t believe in this instance it has had a negative impact on the brand. What it has done is highlighted the issues surrounding the use of body image in advertising which is a separate issue to whether this particular campaign has damaged this company’s brand.

    • Deborah says:

      Thanks for the reply Rageenee. I agree, i think they’ve usefully created an opportunity for such an important issue to gain more discussion platform, so it will be interesting to see what happens over the next few days and how they play a role in enabling the continuation of the topic in a way which shows themselves as responsible and encourages more dialogue.

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