Controversial Marketing: When Marketing Strategies Go Wrong

Controversial Marketing: When Marketing Strategies Go Wrong

13/06/19 | Chloe Mayo

We’ve all seen our fair share of controversial ad campaigns and taken to Twitter to bemoan the poor marketing choices of major brands. Truth be told, though, all that bemoaning and subsequent media coverage can just serve to promote the brand more – often leading to increased traffic to their website and plenty of word-of-mouth awareness. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad press. Can marketing ever really go wrong, then? Well, in some cases, it certainly can.

In the SEO marketing world, Google can make your site drop off the face of the SERPs if you get it wrong, losing untold amounts of exposure for your brand. Failing that, some marketing strategies can go so wrong that you could even wind up in jail, which is always best to avoid. In some cases, a company has shot themselves in the foot so hard they penalised themselves – no hints yet as to who that would be. Here are some extreme examples of what not to do, just in case you’re considering some slightly controversial marketing strategies and need to be talked out of it.


Marketing Gone Wrong


The North Face Manipulates Wikipedia

Quick recap of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) here – SEO is the marketing tactic of getting your website or brand to appear right at the top of Google’s search results through a myriad of ways, within reason. Here, reason was thrown out of the window for a controversial marketing quick win. The North Face, an American outdoor clothing and gear retailer, teamed up with Leo Burnett Tailor Made to come up with an SEO campaign that would get their products in the public eye in a big way. The solution? Leo Burnett Tailor Made edited Wikipedia’s images of famous outdoor locations to now contain photos of people there, in The North Face clothing. And it worked.

Suddenly, through Wikipedia, photos of The North Face’s products were topping search engine image results, giving them untold amounts of brand exposure. And they would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those pesky… themselves?

Wikipedia took swift action, removing the photos and banning accounts, wiping The North Face from their previous lofty heights at the top of Google search. Good job they’ve got some climbing gear, as it’ll be a very long hike back to exposure for them.


Fyre Festival: Instagram vs Reality

We can all admit to adding the odd filter or two when posting on social media. Editing your photos to make life just that little bit prettier is half the fun. So fun it should be criminal. In a paragraph or two, you’ll see what I did there.

A photo of a Google Trends graph showing a large peak in searches for 'Fyre Festival' in January 2019 once the documentaries were released on Hulu and Netflix about the controversial social media marketing that promoted the festival and the disastrous outcome

The absolute shambles of Fyre Festival reached peak exposure when both Netflix and Hulu released documentaries showcasing the social media disaster, but if you’ve not yet caught up – here is a brief recap.

Billy McFarland, CEO of Fyre Media Inc, and Ja Rule, ‘musician’ of sorts, decided to make their own music festival. Other than wildly underestimating the sheer work involved in something like that, a series of expensive social media promotions that could in no way live up to real-life truly tanked this thing quicker than you can say ‘Coachella’. This was a perfect storm of influencer marketing gone mad and extreme social media vs reality issues. The most concerning element is those two marketing ‘strategies’ still run absolutely rampant today; it just doesn’t usually land the brand’s CEO behind bars.

Could this be a sign for the future, though? Influencer marketing is a controversial marketing strategy as is; with increasing amounts of coverage about influencer marketing scams, inflated follower numbers, and lost consumer trust when social media’s hype doesn’t live up to reality, the angry cry of ‘False Advertising!’ might be levied at more and more companies. Could the ‘influencer’ bubble burst once and for all?


BMW Uses ‘Black Hat’ SEO

Every now and then, a new client that joins us has quite clearly had Black Hat SEO tactics used on their websites. We’re a clever bunch here so we can spot it a mile off, and quickly undo all the shady work done by the dodgy SEO company that came before us. Sometimes, though, if you don’t have a team like ours un-doing those dodgy practices, Google catches you first. That never ends well.

Back in the olden days of early SEO, there was a practice called ‘cloaking’, which is essentially the tactic of having a user see something different to what the search engine sees. It’s done purely to inflate rankings. It’s also bad for users and spammy for Google, but it worked well… until it really didn’t.Black Hat SEO is against Google’s guidelines and it’s just plain old as a tactic, so it’s rare(ish) to see it these days. But, back in 2006, BMW’s SEO division was doing it – and they really shouldn’t have been.Once Google caught on (and they always do eventually) BMW went from ranking strong in position 1 for tonnes of highly competitive search terms, all the way down to… 60? 70? So far down no one was ever going to find them. Talking of Google penalties…


Google’s Own Marketing Gone Wrong

Google makes the guidelines, which means they also have to uphold them. Surprisingly, they’ve fallen foul of their own rules numerous times. Although the specifics of who actually was responsible are still murky, essentially Google promoted their new ‘Google Chrome’ browser with dodgy link-building tactics, resulting in a penalty for the Chrome download page which saw it sink off the top positions in the SERPs.This was controversial marketing for a range of obvious reasons, not least because the link building tactic involved bloggers writing lots of generic, spammy posts about Chrome that had no value and were against the Panda algorithm at the very least. This means Google has, at least tangentially, endorsed and encouraged the creation of thin content throughout the web – the very thing it devalues other businesses for having. True to their guidelines, though, Google did give themselves a penalty for it.

So there’s the lesson kids, don’t let an SEO company (or yourself!) write spammy thin content for links to your website; Google will take down anyone found to be doing it – even themselves.


Struggling with Your Marketing Strategy?

Are you concerned that some controversial or even dodgy marketing strategies have been used on your website? Could you be facing a Google penalty or social media backlash for marketing gone wrong? We’re well-versed in undoing the bad practices of other people, so can quickly identify and fix any marketing strategies that could actually be causing you harm. Call our team today on 01604 765796 for a bespoke, free consultation about your marketing needs.