How do you start a conversation? The best ones have multiple points of view to allow an exchange of ideas to occur. Without multiple views, you end up creating a monologue, where the audience nods along with the speaker (usually with glazed-looking eyes).
While there are many avenues to creating a conversation, few are more reliable than controversy.
By its definition, controversy is a prolonged debate or dispute. It pulls people into a conversation. It involves them intellectually, as well as emotionally. These are key elements that marketers aim for.
If it’s so successful, why doesn’t everyone aim to be controversial? Because it’s a risky device—you can’t control a conversation. Instead, it places the subject’s perception in the hands of the public. It removes power from the creator and places them in a reactionary position.
Now keep in mind, a controversy is different from a debate because it connotes both positive and negative views of a topic. It creates enemies. On the other hand, creating enemies can be one of the quickest ways to make friends. Agreeing on what you’re against can sometimes be simpler than agreeing on exactly what you’re for. This is used in the political landscape all the time. The question is: can you create enough friends to outweigh the enemies you make?
When used intentionally, controversy is most often seen in new entities. This is because it’s a defining tactic. Think of new artists, young politicians and start-up companies. Even if they continue being controversial down the road, it’s usually about the same general issues, rather than new topics. Why? Because they’ve already drawn their lines in the sand. But if you draw too many lines you can quickly cut off too many people. Anyone outside of any line can quickly leave the camp you’ve built. Referring back to the political arena, this is why politicians are so strictly coached to stay on a certain few topics and avoid the rest.
So why then is Kmart—which has been established for over 45 years—creating controversy now?
If you’re connected to the internet (which I’m assuming you are since you’re reading this), you’ve either seen or heard about Kmart’s “Ship My Pants” and “Big Gas Savings” commercials. If you haven’t, click below to watch their most impactful spots in the last decade. They were created by the creative agency DraftFCB. Using obvious plays on words, they’ve put out some decidedly low-brow humor.
The reactions were almost instantaneous. The initial commercial quickly rose to 20 million views, and was picked up within hours by The Today Show, Forbes, USA Today, CNN and ABC. Thousands of online comments praised the humor, while thousands of others chastised the vulgarity of it. The group “One Million Moms” gained publicity by decrying against the ads, and suddenly controversy was born.
While most publications have focused on the consumer response to the campaign, I’d like to focus on the publications themselves. Can you think of the last time Kmart was a main topic on the news? Probably not.
DraftFCB didn’t just provide a positive value of humor for Kmart, they also created a negative value with the vulgarity and watched as the controversy created itself. Remember that Kmart built itself as a family brand, from traditional Americana ideals about what a family is and how it should act. In a sense, Kmart is drawing new lines in the sand in an attempt to create new friends, knowing it will also make new enemies.
The arguments for whether this campaign will raise Kmarts bottom line are being made in other articles. What we’re looking at here is that thousands of publications are covering what was an extremely boring brand.
DraftFCB didn’t simply create a funny and raunchy campaign for Kmart—they set out to create controversy. And we think this calculated risk to be bold was smart. It’s a move that admits the desperation of the brand to become current again, but also a willingness to take new risks. Now it will be up to the public to decide whether the American family has changed enough to accept this direction, or whether Kmart will speed up its long, downward spiral.
At THINK creative group, we learn every day from our own experiences and by keeping a close eye on those around us. Only time will tell the full the story of how this campaign affects Kmart’s bottom line, but it is sure to be a case study worth following. Will this change be a successful refresh like Old Spice? Or will it be a disaster like JC Penny? Tell us what you think in the comments below.