Why Does Controversy Cause Social Lift?

Why Does Controversy Cause Social Lift?

(Note: This is a guest article from a friend of the Ad Club of St. Louis, Cody J. Riebe. We love when people have opinions on anything in the marketing and advertising world – especially when they want to share them! If you have an idea for an article, please email us at director@adclubstlouis.org.)


A billboard which appeared to equate Donald Trump to Jesus was put up last weekend in St. Louis, Missouri. The ad (pictured above) featured a picture of Trump with a partial quote from John 1:14, “the word became flesh…” The right-hand corner of the billboard is decorated with a cross, an American flag, and the phrase, “make the gospel great again.”

Unsurprisingly, the ad was removed on the following Monday. Many St. Louisans apparently complained that the ad was offensive. The ad’s removal caused the story to be picked up by several news outlets and shared by nearly 2,000 Twitter users. Why do ads that are taken down often get more attention than the ones that are left standing?

Controversial ads demand attention. Anything that challenges its audience is going to get more reaction than something that’s been seen many times before. And — despite the intense polarization of the political parties in this country — this particular ad managed to upset people on both sides. People are more prone to make noise about something that offends them. Complaints caused the ad to be taken down, creating interest from the news media who reported the story, which in turn fueled more outraged people to share the story on social, which allowed the story to eventually go viral.

If it’s this easy to pitch the media and make it go viral, why don’t more brands do it? While controversy won’t necessarily kill a brand, it certainly can do some damage. It’s not worth risking your brand’s integrity for a short burst of attention. Not to mention, going viral should never be an end goal; it’s a benefit of successfully engaging your target audience.

The Trump billboard didn’t have an established brand to worry about, so it didn’t have anything to lose in terms of brand integrity. It was successful, insofar as lots of people noticed it, but it also didn’t have a clear message or call to action. This simultaneously amplified its reach while nullifying its effectiveness.

Controversy will certainly get you attention, but any good marketer knows that attention in and of itself isn’t worth much. At the end of the day, advertising for brands is about influencing actions. Simply agitating lots of people isn’t enough to move the needle by itself.


Written By: Cody J. Riebe, Public Relations & Content Specialist at BillboardsIn