Yesterday, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino sent a letter to Nike as a result of the current tee shirt display in their Newbury Street NikeTown Store. The T-shirts include slogans such as “Get High” and “F**k Gravity” and offended Menino’s sensibilities. Nike says they “are part of an action sports campaign, featuring marquee athletes using commonly used and accepted expressions for performance at the highest level of their sport, be it surfing, skateboarding or BMX.”

Karen Rubin spent a few minutes talking with WGBH's Emily Rooney and marketing professor Andy Aylesworth about the campaign.  


As a marketer, using controversy can be its own marketing technique. By pushing the envelope and being on the edge of acceptability, marketers run the risk of offending people, but there can be a marketing benefit to doing so as it gets people talking about you. It’s a delicate balance between stirring enough controversy so that you incite conversation and too much controversy so you start to damage your brand. Here are some tips, for marketers wading into controversial marketing.  

1. Be Passionate

If you are embarking on a controversial marketing campaign, you need to be passionate about the point you are making. If the campaign comes under scrutiny, you need to be able to explain your thoughts and stand up for what your company believes. If, as a company, you don’t really believe in what you are saying, it will be challenging to face the critiques without backing down.  

2. Keep to Your Brand

Being controversial isn’t so important that you should go against for what your brand stands. Both Nike and the city of Boston have a responsibility to make sure their brands are well represented. Nike has decided that these T-shirts represent its brand to a particular audience. Likewise, Mayor Menino has decided that having them in the store's front window does not represent the brand of Boston’s Back Bay. Both parties need to be confidant about what their brand is and make sure they aren’t making compromises. 

3. Get Everyone on Board 

If you are deciding to embark on a campaign that might be a little (or a lot) controversial, make sure everyone is on board. If your campaign starts to get attention, you want to make sure people within your company aren’t surprised. You want to make sure everyone is behind the message, so that your response can be consistent. Nike was very quickly able to post a response to the Mayor’s public cry for the shirts to be removed. This would be much harder if people within the organization didn’t agree to what the response should be. 

4. Have a Plan

Before you launch your controversial campaign, make sure you have a plan for when it starts getting attention. Think about how you want to respond and discuss it with your team before the campaign launches to make sure you are agree as to what your response should be. When controversy blows up, you don’t want to be sitting around discussing what your press release should say. Getting in front of it quickly with a thoughtful response is important to your brand and your message. 

5. Have a Back Out Plan 

It’s always possible for a controversial campaign to go too far and start hurting your brand. If this happens, you want to make sure you have a back out plan that your team is behind. Think in advance about what “too far” really means and how you want to measure the impact of your campaign. It’s better to ensure that your team is in agreement about when it starts to hurt your brand and what your response should be before it happens.

Thinking ahead is important when you are walking the line between normal and controversial. The longer it takes you to respond, the more time controversy has to build, the more damage it can do to your brand. But controversial content and remarkable content definitely overlap and adding a little controversy into your marketing efforts might give an interesting boost. 


Originally published Jun 22, 2011 2:04:00 PM, updated June 10 2021

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