Cashing in on controversy: I Love Ugly and why scandal can be a feature and a bug—UPDATED

UPDATE: Following a complaint to the ASA, I Love Ugly has removed the campaign and apologised for it. 

The complainant R. White said (and others voiced similar concerns): “I object to the use of a naked women being touched in a sexual way in order to tell men’s jewellery products. This contravenes point #5 of the Code for People in Advertising. Not only is the sexual appeal of a woman being used to sell a product which is unrelated to sex, but the relationship depicted is exploitative and degrading. The woman remains naked throughout the campaign, while the man is fully clothed. The man is clearly in control, the woman subservient, always passive, never active. I strongly believe that this imagery serves to reinforce damaging attitudes towards women, promoting the view of women’s bodies as passive objects. I’d like to see this imagery removed from I Love Ugly’s website and other marketing or advertising collateral. I strongly believe that this imagery serves to reinforce damaging attitudes towards women, promoting the view of women’s bodies as passive objects. I’d like to see this imagery removed from I Love Ugly’s website and other marketing or advertising collateral.”

In response, I Love Ugly said: “We take complaints of this nature extremely seriously. Please be advised there was absolutely no intention to cause offence to any members of our prospective audience and we regret if the images were received in this way. We take great pride in the standard of advertising we deliver, and have established brand guidelines and advertising sign-off processes which are designed to assist compliance with the Advertising Codes of Practice. In these circumstances, our internal policies were adhered to and the appropriate sign-off received. As an organisation, we constantly strive to evolve and challenge our audience, while staying true to our established brand and tenacious worldwide followers. However, causing offence to our audience is counter-productive and does not fit with the brand message we are trying to deliver. We believe the series of images took into account the prospective consumers of the I Love Ugly clothing range and wish to express that these were not intended to degrade, or objectify woman in any way. Nevertheless, we have reflected on the concerns of the complainants and decided to rectify the issue by removing the series of images to which the complaints relate from all I Love Ugly marketing channels. In order to mitigate the risk of further complaints, we will undertake a review of our procedures and policies to assist compliance with the Advertising Codes of Practice. I Love Ugly strives for a ‘best practice’ approach and intends to lessen the opportunities for advertising complaints in the future. I Love Ugly has never received a formal complaint from the Advertising Standards Authority in the past. This is an isolated incident. Provided the affected individuals who took offence accept our sincere apology and steps to rectify the issue, we expect this matter can be resolved amicably without need for further correspondence.”

As a result of the self-regulatory action taken by the advertiser, the chairman ruled the complaint settled. 

Original story December 4: Kiwi menswear brand I Love Ugly launched its new men’s jewellery range yesterday with a lookbook that many social media users accused of objectifying women. And it’s the latest brand to feel the ire of the angry mob—and, potentially, the perverse benefits of being slammed in an era where attention has become a currency. 

Ad folk often claim the worst kind of advertising is the mediocre, safe stuff that slips by noticed. But there are also dangers in trying too hard to get attention, and, in the case of I Love Ugly, taking what many feel is the low, sexist, misogynistic road to get it (gallery potentially NSFW). 

The brand explained the thinking behind the new range on Facebook and responded to the controversy by tweeting that the campaign had “mixed reviews”.

That response only seemed to fan the flames among the detractors, leading to plenty of calls for the brand to apologise for its bad judgement. It decided not to follow the lead of Team Cranium, which put up a crass Caitlyn Jenner billboard in Auckland and apologised soon after, or Bloomingdales, which thought spiking eggnog was a good idea. But it did respond later in the day by posting a new set of images with the roles reversed and, in what could be seen as either extremely confident or completely tone deaf fashion, addressing some of the images to Twitter users who had taken issue with the first round. 

Cynics might suggest that campaigns aiming to garner attention by being provocative could be planned by dastardly marketers and are designed to tap into the apparent correlation between increased attention—positive or negative—and increased sales. But the other side of the argument is that it’s impossible to know how the world will respond to your creations until they’re out in the wild, whether it’s stories on a blog, ads on TV or pictures in a lookbook. Creative director Valentin Ozich was unable to be contacted to see which side of their ledger I Love Ugly was on. But there is a fine line between success and failure, between edgy and dodgy, and fashion brands are well-known for riding that line. 

The agency folk we asked about this all said the campaign doesn’t appear to be in keeping with what the brand has done in the past when it was more about quiet flair (and the occasional dose of over earnestness) than the obvious and tacky (“I’ve got it, boobs!’). And while they said it was unlikely a large brand would be brave and/or foolish enough to purposefully cause controversy, put its brand at risk and then have something up their sleeve in response to keep the conversation going, they said it’s not outside the realms of possibility for smaller brands with limited budgets and a desire for attention to give it a crack, especially given the fact that for every person commenting on the issue there are probably ten more just watching what’s happening and, in this case, visiting the site (conspiracy theory alert: I Love Ugly also launched its new eyewear range on the same day). 

It’s not clear how many rings were on offer, but its website shows plenty of them have sold out already. And a recent poster campaign for Protein World featuring a girl in a bikini with the line: “Are you beach body ready?” showed a similar trend. 

The company didn’t spend much on the campaign. But, as Dave Trott wrote, “the posters have been defaced, and vilified across social media. They’ve become a huge news story in the press and on TV. Sixty thousand people were so outraged they petitioned the Tube to take down the posters. The coverage across all the media was worth millions of pounds. In fact Protein World say it got 5,000 new customers in just four days. So controversy can be good.”

And it’s also no secret sex still sells. The ASA has rules around using sex to sell unrelated products. But advertisers targeting men like Carl’s Jr still openly and often fairly crassly tap into it. Even so, there comes a time when you need to listen. Pissing people off to get attention can work in the short term. But there does seem to be a limit to how often you can do it. Like a fraudster who thinks they will never get caught, or a drug user who thinks they can keep using and maintain a normal life, the wheels inevitably fall off (although, in a media sense, pissing people off is exactly what the Daily Mail does every day, and it’s one of the most successful news websites in the world).

And the rise and recent fall of American Apparel, which, like I Love Ugly, started off as a favourite of the hipster set and for many years featured scantily clad—and often very young—girls in its ads, seems to be a good example of pushing things too far. 

Hell Pizza is an interesting case study for a brand that has gone the other way. In the early days, it regularly fell foul of the public with its often puerile stunts. But it has evolved, it has matured and, when required, it has apologised. The campaign for its gourmet rabbit pizza generated plenty of interest, provoking vigorous debate on social media and leading to six complaints to the ASA (none of which were upheld). And like Pizza Roulette, the discussion was also picked up in international media, with TimeThe Daily Mail and many others featuring it.

“The billboard had its detractors, but most people would struggle to be offended. All the positive feedback we received and our sales results overwhelmingly shows that, with a 19 percent increase in sales from Easter last year,” Hell’s general manager Ben Cumming told StopPress earlier. “We never set out to offend people with our marketing, but we accept that, while trying to make people laugh and provoke discussion, it’s unrealistic to expect a 100 percent positive response.”

Humans generally seem willing to forgive stupidity and the outrage machine moves fairly quickly these days (One Plus One’s Kelly Bennett points to a comment by Tony Blair where he said a major crisis tends to last 11 days of intense public scrutiny, given that’s a traditional media life-cycle, and his infamous communications director Alistair Campbell says it’s important to know the difference between a crisis and a media frenzy because the former are rare and the latter common). Even so, when we spoke with Pead PR’s Deborah Pead a while back, she said some publicity stunts can be hugely damaging to brand reputation and company morale. But the stronger the brand the more resistant it is to negative press.

“Good leadership and smart PR skills will use the negative press as an occasion to fix the system for the good and promote the change, which will in turn make the brand even stronger. People are forgiving, they recognise that humans make mistakes. As long as people can see a genuine effort to check and change ways, and minimise the risk of repeating the mistake, a brand, person, product or service can survive bad press.”

Pead also gave some examples she could think of where bad or negative press turned into a positive.

“The Marmite shortage was turned into the clever Marmageddon campaign or the abusive X Factor judges who quit affected audience ratings in the short term, but it ultimately got more people watching at the end of the day. Lewis Road Creamery faced criticism over rebranding as ‘Breast Milk’ to support Breast Cancer Cure, but it ultimately raised awareness and was eventually hailed as savvy marketing.”

Pead says brands work hard to build a store of goodwill and when a misguided attempt at humour (or total misjudgement) generates publicity it can be an opportunity for a brand.

“The brand needs to take a proactive approach, put it right and say so. You see this often in the hospitality industry when a hotel or restaurant comes under attack by an amateur reviewer or guest. The brand fronts up, apologises, addresses the issue and makes it right and follows up. Politicians are renowned for ignoring this strategy.”

Pead says a recent overseas example of a brand being a bit controversial is L’Oréal Professionnel UK’s campaign which encouraged women to visit their hairdressers ‘for a shag’.

“Of course it was referring to the shaggy style haircut which bears the name, but there was a bit of uproar about it and caused some negative talk – consumers and also industry spokespeople said it was ‘sexualising women as playthings’. However it proved a good call as it was such an ‘everyday’ salon offer that the brand was promoting, it wouldn’t have got much consumer-focused publicity at all had it not gone down the cheeky route – certainly not a homepage feature in the Mail Online.”

It can also go horribly wrong, of course, as it did in a campaign for Dr Pepper called ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ Lots of people agreed to let the brand take control of their Facebook pages and one of them on a 13 year old girl’s page said she was going to watch two girls, one cup. When the mother looked it up, things unravelled quickly (and the agency lost its biggest client).  

Pead says in the world of digital and social media things can blow up in a good way and drive loads of conversation, or there can be mass backlash.

“Brands need to be prepared for both.”

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