All Press Isn’t Good Press For Some Brands

Sep 16, 2013

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,, 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? How do you see the relationship between controversy and word-of-mouth buzz for brands and retailers?

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16 Comments on "All Press Isn’t Good Press For Some Brands"

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Ryan Mathews

Of course it all depends on the controversy, but I’d say in general there are better ways to build buzz for the brand.

The other factor is time. At the time of the Tylenol tampering incident I’m sure sales were down but, years later, Johnson & Johnson was seen as a company who would do anything to protect consumers and therefore was highly trustworthy.

Contrast that with Paula Deen’s recent experience. At her age, she probably doesn’t have enough years to outrun the damage to her brand.

Controversy has a remarkably short shelf life. Anyone remember Alar? Everyone still eating apples?

As to word of mouth, in the era of social networking the traditional model is accelerated. Controversy spreads more rapidly; spikes earlier and then burns out sooner than in past eras as new controversies pop up to replace the one we focus our collective attention on for 15 minutes.

Steve Montgomery

The famous quote regarding the press and controversy “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right” is no longer as valid as it once might have been. Today, the way stories are told and retold is far more complex.

Controversies had relatively short lives when they were simply written about in newspapers or as part of a TV news broadcast. Now we are blessed or cursed with the internet and once something is on the internet, it exists forever. However, the good news is that controversies are also soon replaced by the next controversy.

Max Goldberg

The degree of potential damage depends on the nature of the controversy. One person’s negative perception could be another person’s positive. Chick-fil-A is a prime example.

People involved in controversy tend to hurt their brands in the long-term more than companies: Paula Dean and Eliot Spitzer are two examples.

The public usually has short memories. Unless the controversy is particularly heinous, most consumers eventually forget. A&F is an example.

Brands should not seek out controversy, regardless if they believe that any publicity may be good publicity.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
4 years 1 month ago

A strong debate can be very healthy for a brand. If done at the right level, the WOM value can be very high. It’s when a brand is involved in a very polarized topic that you run into issues – same-sex marriage, abortion, gun control, etc. – that you start to see a truly negative effect with WOM. Why?

1) The group you are not supporting leaves your brand.
2) People stuck in the middle leave because they feel uncomfortable.
3) The group you supported never truly shows up in the masses like they promised.

Brands should work to create constructive debate that leads to strong brand messaging through WOM. At the same time, they should avoid getting involved in truly polarized topics where no one really wins.

Brian Fletcher
Brian Fletcher
4 years 1 month ago

Of course, it depends on the type(s) of controversy and frequency of the controversy(s).

In cases where the controversy relates to the company’s core values or beliefs (e.g. Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby) I think having the controversy is a good thing overall. It means the company knows who they are and is comfortable standing firmly behind their values and beliefs.

In the end, customers with the same beliefs will reward them and hopefully that’s a large enough base of customers to build a long term business with.

Phil Rubin
4 years 1 month ago

It’s hard to make a generalization that controversy is good or bad for brands and retailers, as the conflicting research cited points out. Consider Kenneth Cole’s recent tweet which raised both controversy and publishing a defense that it was good for sales.

Tapping into controversy, or causing it, is not a business strategy though, but rather just a tactic – unless it backfires, in which case it’s a really bad strategy.

Ed Rosenbaum

Controversy has an affect. But the degree is determined by the cause in question. Chick-fil-A was in the news for several days. Then all was quiet. They probably brought as many new customers in the door as old ones left. In the case of Paula Dean, has her restaurant been affected after the short run negative blitz? I don’t think so. But I have no proof to verify it either way.

Doug Garnett

Here would be my suggestion: Whether a company is better or worse off after being hit by controversy depends on how they handle the controversy.

If the company looks (appears, perception) hesitant, massively bureaucratic or confused, that works against them.

If they appear highly competent, savvy, thoughtful, and respectful of the magnitude of the controversy, then they can come out better off.

But here’s the most interesting question: How far out of their way should a company go to avoid controversy? When does avoiding a controversy that’s percolating around them work against the company – make them look weak, or dully bureaucratic?

Craig Sundstrom

As for the theory that “all news is good news,” I don’t agree with it. Sure it gets your name out in the public eye (or ear) for a while – which of course is the goal of much advertising – but the effect is brief at best, and it just underscores the fact that you’re not otherwise worth noticing.

Larry Negrich

The examples cited in the article were not from companies that were intentionally seeking to create a controversy in order to profit from the controversy. Most of these companies/examples would have been happy to have their decisions pass quietly and not be taken into a controversial arena of public opinion. I would be curious to understand how a self-manufactured controversy such as Benneton’s world leaders kissing ads affected sales and long-term brand equity.

Mark Price

When we talk about brands and retailers being hit by controversy, we need to delve a little deeper into what we mean by the word. There is controversy such as the multiracial Cheerios television ad, which was consistent with the brand message and corporate values while nonetheless leading to heavy discussion on the Internet and in the media. There is also controversy when brands begin to take positions on public issues in ways that are not related to their brand message and corporate values.

Controversy that is driven by actions that reinforce a business positioning can be very helpful. Controversy that is driven by the political motivations of an executive (or political aspirations of that executive) are examples of controversy that will have potential to reduce the value of the brand in the short and the long term.

Brian Numainville

A controversy can spread via social media like wild fire. However, there is usually a peak and then the media shifts to something else just as quickly. Controversy is not the best way to get attention in the media but at the same time, it will eventually, in most cases, be inconsequential.

Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
4 years 1 month ago

When part of an intentional marketing strategy where a brand is positioned in line with a controversial topic, it can be quite beneficial. When the controversial position is not in line with the brand positioning, or the result of a mistake, it is often negative. There is little science here to convince most professional marketers to employ controversy as a business strategy. There are better ways to build brand buzz.

gordon arnold

There are just as many people that remain oblivious to any and all controversy as there are that are living with high moral and social standards. What is important is to know your customer and act accordingly. Companies that span both of these markets simply need to say “No comment” and when pressed spin it, and keep spinning it ’till it goes away.

Jerry Gelsomino

Interesting topic. In the internet/blog/readers comments’ era, it has been said that individuals have unlimited sources to find and do search out a eCommunity that thinks like them. While it may be fun for a while to be an outspoken minority, it’s more comforting to be surrounded by like thinkers, i.e. the polarization of US TV stations.

So it is interesting to read that a significant number of people AVOID controversial issues and stick to the safer ones. “Any PR is good PR” needs closer evaluation.

Kenneth Leung

I think it all depends on the controversy and how well it fits into the core image of the company. Some fashion brands have leveraged controversies from one group to actually increase relevance to their target audience (Calvin Klein, A&F) while other more general retailers, like grocery, have generally avoided controversies since they usually do more harm than good.


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