There is no such thing as bad publicity.
Outrage-bait marketing is any marketing tactic that is done with the intention of specifically creating a backlash or controversy. If successful, you can generate a ton of free publicity.
The recent Dylan Mulvaney and Bud Light “controversy” is a classic example. Mulvaney is a trans woman TikTok influencer who was recently sponsored by Bud Light. This caused some right-wing personalities like Kid Rock to lose their mind and talk about how terrible Bud Light is. This led to a round of news coverage and chatter on social media.
How Outrage-Bait Marketing Works
This may look like a random battle in the never-ending culture war, but I think this is a deliberate tactic used by some social media marketers. Outrage-bait marketing follows a playbook we have seen many times before:
- Brand takes a “woke” action
- Right wing influencers get angry
- News media covers both the outrage and the campaign
That coverage by the media both increases the reach of the original campaign and adds to the salience. Which are you more likely to click on: an ad for Bud Light, or a news story about Bud Light?
Outrage can almost be seen as a product benefit. Buying your product makes a specific groups upset, which makes it seem more edgy and exciting. Musicians were the real innovators here, including Madonna, Marilyn Manson, and Eminem. The news coverage of these artists would make parents paranoid and angry, which made their music seem cool.
In the case of Dylan and Bud Light, generating backlash from grumpy old white guys makes their company sound more brave and socially progressive, which increases relevance to Gen Z and Millennial consumers. This is extremely relevant for a brand like Bud Light – beer sales are generally in decline, especially among younger people, will be a great way to generate salience among a target audience.
Does Outrage Marketing Pay?
Yes, it seems this right-wing outrage is profitable. Rolling Stone wrote a great breakdown that covered the business impact of previous controversies. Jack Daniels, Keurig, and United Airlines all performed fine after right wing boycotts.
It is also important to differentiate outrage-bait with purpose-based marketing. Purpose-based marketing creates is about connecting your product to a broader set of values, such as “equality,” “the environment,” or “fighting poverty.” Some examples of brands that have used this to great effect include Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, and Patagonia.
While that sounds nice, purpose-based marketing tends to underperform non-purpose-based marketing. Touchy-feely ads that say good stuff is good and bad stuff is bad aren’t particularly attention grabbing or memorable. The whole story is more complicated, since strong marketing purpose campaigns can have a massive impact, but tacking on a purpose where it doesn’t belong will not help your business grow.
In some ways, I see outrage-bait marketing as being a levelled-up version of purpose marketing. It goes from bland and forgettable to edgy and evocative.
To be clear, I don’t am not trying to make an ethical argument about either outrage-based or purpose-based. I think it is good to have wider representation in advertising as well as product that are meant for a wider range of people. I also think that intentionally provoking crazies on the internet has real risks. There is a much bigger conversation about how marketing fits into the culture war, but it is important to recognize that this is first-and-foremost a marketing tactic and needs to be evaluated in that light.
Uniting on a Strategy
While there are many examples of outrage-bait marketing leading to business growth, it is important to note that you need everyone on-board. I’m sure the top executives at Anheuser Busch (Bud Light’s parent company) have gotten more than a few angry emails. If they weren’t prepared for this possibility, they may be having a firm conversation with their marketing department, even if sales numbers are fine.
In fact, Anheuser Busch management doesn’t seem to know what to do about the response to this campaign:
It is also important that these tactics are authentic to the company. While its hilarious to see right-wingers lose their mind over Bud Light etc., this shouldn’t be a cover for other actions taken by big corporations. In this case, Anheuser Busch was critiqued a couple years back for donating to lawmakers that supported anti-trans legislation.
Are they an ally or an enemy? They are really just a beer company.
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