A little controversy can indeed help generate some word-of-mouth buzz for a brand, but too much controversy turns people off, according to a study from Georgia Institute of Technology and Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
"Controversial topics can make consumers uncomfortable (since they worry about offending others) and therefore less likely to discuss them. Whether or not consumers are willing to discuss a controversial topic depends on a combination of their level of interest and comfort (or discomfort)," wrote the authors in the study in a press release. The study will appear October's Journal of Consumer Research.
More than 200 articles from the news website, topix.com, were measured to see how the controversy level of an article corresponded to the number of comments it received. Moderately controversial articles received more comments than articles that were either less or more controversial.
Then, in a series of lab experiments, the authors found that context — such as whether or not people disclose identity and whether they are talking to strangers or friends — affects comfort levels around following word-of-mouth efforts. When social acceptance is less of a concern (when people are communicating anonymously), or less threatened by the discussion of controversial topics (when communicating with friends), the "importance of the discomfort factor is reduced."
The researchers concluded, "Companies' attempts to evoke anything more than a moderate level of controversy can backfire and end up generating less buzz."
Topics such as exercise or the weather were listed as less controversial than abortion or same-sex marriage in the study. Among brands, Quaker Oats and Hallmark were listed as less controversial than Marlboro and Walmart.
The results appear to run somewhat counter to findings from a study earlier this year from WrightIMC, an internet marketing agency, of controversial public positions recently taken by five major U.S. brands. The cases and topics included Chick-fil-A (same-sex marriage), Hobby Lobby (contraceptives in employee medical plans), J.C. Penney (Ellen DeGeneres as spokesperson), and Starbucks (same-sex marriage). Some of the cases led to boycott threats.
Based on more than 3,000 consumers, the research found brands taking such controversial stands may encounter an initial decline in sales, but consumers eventually forget or forgive if the product quality is high. The benefits are an increased internet presence and enhanced search engine optimization, and possible loyalty gain if the stance works favorably with the majority of the brand's audience.
Generally speaking, are brands and retailers hit by controversy better or worse off as a result?