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Andrei Sychev
17 Apr 2019

Why test controversial ads?

Going the controversial way when developing your creative ideas is very tempting. At large, it is due to the ever increasing media noise and the need to cut through it. But also it is due to the success of those who know how to provoke in a clever way, be it in the context of show business, modern art or advertising. In other words, we live in the time of buzz, hype and Katy Perry (who has more followers on Twitter than Barack Obama). So when launching controversial ads creative people are seeking to disrupt the market and attract attention. Occasionally forgetting that the bottom line is to inform consumers about the product so that they would want to buy it.

On top of that there is an opinion in marketing that there is no need to learn what consumers think about controversial ads. Allegedly consumers contradict themselves in that they tend to give low or negative scores to brave ideas, but when faced with the product in stores their hands reach for the wallet in the hype of the moment.

It is no secret that provocative ads are polarising. That’s why it is very important to understand who your target audience is and what you want to achieve with the ad.

This article is about why controversial ads should be tested and how to do it right. Our take on it.
But be smart when pushing boundaries.
Some marketers have a special sixth sense for these things. They know exactly where the line is between a successful provocation and a full blown fiasco. If you are not one of those people then it’s a good idea to put a "warning" system in place. It could be a preliminary testing of creative materials, for example. Even if you do have that sixth sense it is still useful to occasionally fertilise your intuition with consumer feedback.
Don't disconnect from reality
In our experience the problem we see is not so much in that the ideas are too controversial but rather in that they are often too unclear to people and don’t match their needs.

If you don’t test you won’t know why a given idea hasn’t worked. Also when using such methods as click count with A/B testing which only measure performance for example, you still won’t know what the actual problem is. And, possibly, next time you will settle for something much more "missionary".
Are those your people anyway?
You might have a skewed impression about the level of tolerance of today’s consumers to brave advertising if you only base it on social media comments. It is possible that they will be made by a small group of people who lean to the conservative side of the scale. To understand your audience better, select those methods which will accurately represent them.
Sample size does matter
Focus groups are a great method for understanding why an ad appealed or didn’t appeal to consumers, to select materials for further development of the idea or to find new insights for developing future creative campaigns. But to aid decision making related to entering the market it is best to use quantitative methods. Those tend to be less biased one way or the other because of small sample size.
Testing can be and should be done fast
Controversial advertising is usually a very fast reaction to the situation in the market. Time to generate creative ideas and make decisions is at a premium. Traditional research doesn’t work here. But now, thankfully there are agile tools which allow you to hear your consumers and get the results back quickly in time to address the market "mood".
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