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The Most Controversial Marketing Campaigns on Social Media

Updated: Apr 3

Date of Publication: 11/03/2024

In the world of marketing, brands constantly make their mark with their never-to-be-forgotten ads. However, hidden within the vast ocean of creativity, lie the controversial ones. Do these 'big brands' all have a controversial skeleton in their closet? And what drives them to cross the line?

This article aims to explore some of the most widespread and impactful social media campaigns from recent years, shedding light on what makes them controversial and exploring the underlying reasons behind their creation.

What makes the campaigns controversial?

Firstly, let’s understand what makes campaigns to be perceived as scandals. Throughout history, it has been evident that controversy surrounding issues such as world problems, ethical dilemmas and current affairsmakes the campaigns boom the most.


Let’s take a look at some of the most controversial campaigns from recent years.

Pepsi: Black Lives Matter (2017)

Pepsi faced backlash for an ad featuring Kendall Jenner seemingly trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement by suggesting a Pepsi could solve social issues.

Nivea: White is Purity (2017)

Nivea sparked outrage with an ad campaign that was interpreted as promoting white supremacy due to its slogan "White is purity."

Nike: Colin Kaepernick (2018)

Nike's campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, known for kneeling during the national anthem in protest against racism, divided public opinion, with some praising Nike's support for Kaepernick and others boycotting the brand. The ad gainedmore than 80 million views on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.

KFC: FCK (2018)

KFC faced a significant supply chain crisis with KFCchicken shortage, managing the situation with an ad rearranging the letters in their logo to spell "FCK” and showing an empty KFC bucket with the tagline "We're sorry." The campaign reached a global audience of 797 million.

PureGym: 12 Years of Slave (2020)

PureGym faced backlash for an insensitive promotion related to Black History Month, referring to the film "12 Years a Slave." The post has attracted huge criticism for comparing a demanding workout to slavery.

Burger King: Women Belong to the Kitchen (2021)

Burger King's tweet for International Women's Daysparked outrage due to its wording, despite the intention to promote culinary opportunities for women. The ad received a wave of outrage from social media users.

Zara: Israel-Hamas War (2023)

Zara faced criticism for a campaign “The Jacket” featuring images resembling a conflict zone in Gaza, prompting accusations of insensitivity. In return, the company publiclyapologised and decided to remove the campaign, previously explaining that the photoshoot took place before the war started.

Poor marketing or intentional provocation?

What is the reason behind such marketing? The purpose of the ads is to influence us, that’s for sure. The allure of controversy plays a significant role in achieving this goal. Controversy generates buzz, sparks conversations, and ultimately drives attention towards the brand or product. Sometimes controversy emerges due to a lack of understanding of the audience or cultural sensitivities, which can be a result of poor marketing strategy. Other times, stems from intentional provocation, where it is deliberately stirred up to gain publicity.


Navigating balance

However, companies need to be cautious when they explore controversial topics. Although it might attract attention and create engagement, it could also upset their audience, harm their brand image, and cause negative reactions. So, they need to find the right balance between being bold and being sensitive.



In conclusion, as brands continue to push boundaries in the ever-evolving landscape of social media marketing, one question looms large: How far is too far when it comes to courting controversy for the sake of attention ?


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