Why hate sells

16 Apr 2019  |  Sophie Russell 
Why hate sells

If half the world hates your brand, the other half will buy your product, writes Sophie Russell

‘The Power of Love,’ once suggested Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘is a force from above’. Which, one assumes, would make the Power of Hate the Devil’s work. Or, as it transposes, the work of advertising agencies. Which are different things. Promise.

Hate sells. It’s often zero sum. If one group of people hate something, another group will love it. If that thing is publicly denounced, that latter group’s views become ingrained. Take Leaving Neverland, the controversial Michael Jackson documentary from earlier this year. It fueled a renewed hatred towards the one-time superstar.

Millions globally expressed their shock and disgust at the allegations. Right here in London, thousands of Michael Jackson supporters crowdsourced funds for a TfL campaign protesting his innocence, which was promptly removed amid a further backlash.

What happened next, predictably, is that his record sales in the UK peaked. Why? That very hatred has entrenched his supporters to become ever-more vocal on his behalf and support a man, who, dead or not, they believe to be innocent through their wallets.

Michael Jackson’s culpability is clearly not an issue for adland, but we can learn a lesson here. How can you take a product or service and make it so divisive that half of people lambast it to the point that their opposite number buys it?

Brands have done this, often unintentionally, for years. Were you ‘Beach Body Ready? The Protein World tube campaign from 2015 ruffled a lot of feathers. It was, claimed the offended, objectifying and body-shaming; projecting unattainable standards of beauty, the continued hyper-sexualisation of women in public spaces.

And boy did London tweet about it. You can’t buy publicity like that. The firm spent only £250,000 on the whole campaign. Yet it generated orders of magnitude more in media exposure. So successful was the campaign, Protein World ran an even racier version the following year. The more buttons it pushed, the more people bought its product.

Sometime London Mayor-cum-TfL censor, Sadiq Khan, subsequently banned all ads that promote unrealistic expectations about body image and health. And again, the ad was printed in papers nationwide, free of charge.

So far, so malign. But one needn’t wind up half of the country by objectifying women to ride a wave of hate. Provoking Piers Morgan will suffice, as Greggs the baker discovered. When it launched a vegan sausage roll earlier this year — a fairly innocuous undertaking — there were calls for boycotts, riots, uprisings and the like. Everyone’s favourite shock jock, Piers Morgan, declared Greggs to be ‘PC-ravaged clowns’ for releasing such a noxious product.

Suffice to say, clowns are scary enough without being PC-ravaged. Morgan’s ringing un-endorsement ignited something between love for the brand and hatred of the loudmouth’s loudmouth. Perhaps bittersweet for Morgan’s influencer credentials, since the launch, Greggs went on to achieve its best ever quarter, bolstered by a remarkable uptick in vegan sausage rolls.

But hate swings both ways. Tapping into hate can make you its subject. When Gillette released its now-infamous The Best a Man Can Be offering, it tanked, spawning derision, contempt and a mild hatred towards the brand.

People hate toxic masculinity, sure. But positioning a brand within a debate to shoehorn ‘brand purpose’ into a narrative is not the same as harnessing public sentiment. If a brand wants to enter into debate about a controversial subject, it must have permission to engage in the issue.

If, for example, a brand had spent 30 years plugging damaging masculine tropes, or marking up the cost of pink razors, or producing ads offering a male-generated view of what a woman should be, then it’s fair to say, it simply doesn’t have permission to be in that debate.

It’s a minefield. Intentionally dividing further an already divided world is clearly a fairly risky undertaking. But tapping into the outrage of a loud minority is a gambit worth pursuing. You can’t please all the people all the time. But you can piss some of them off.

Sophie Russell is Senior Planner, BRAVE

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DraytonBird, Founder, Drayton Bird Associates on 17 Apr 2019
“Those of us who write stuff that gets measured responses know this is true. If I write an email that enrages some it will usually delight others. The anodyne trie most ads purvey achieves nothing - except to waste money”


17 Jun 2019 

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