Jane Genova
Jane Genova

“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” That controversial violation of grammar (“as” would have been correct) helped make the brand number two back in 1954. Advertising Age saluted it as among the 10 best promotions in the 20th century.

Leveraged until 1972, the success of that campaign hardened, at least in some circles, into this: the belief that controversy is a power tool for amazing results in communications.

During the 1984 presidential election, Ronald Reagan, with a quip, leveraged the age controversy into a boost in poll numbers. Through the legal controversy over privacy rights in 2016—“Hulk Hogan v Gawker”—conservatives drove radical Gawker out of business.

That was then. Now what?

Right now even the most enthusiastic supporters of the controversy strategy should be recalculating the possible rewards and risks. It has been major news: Controversial anchors Don Lemon of CNN and Tucker Carlson of Fox News have lost their jobs. Meanwhile, the story still has legs that Bud Light’s controversial use of transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney in a promotion is decimating the stock price. Bud Light VP of marketing Alissa Heinerscheid, who was behind the promotion, is on a leave of absence.

Obviously, controversies can be too hot to handle, that is, incapable of being transformed into useful publicity, branding, boosted stock price and sales. They also can become downright irritating, boring and/or counterproductive. Fading in some contexts is their appeal as “edgy.”

A common example of that are the verbal and policy grenades tossed by Elon Musk. Tesla investors label all that a “distraction” and demand it stop. Like Musk, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis mobilizes controversy, especially with Disney and Donald Trump, for political equity. Yet, his polls are down. Former brandnames Rudy Giuliani and Alan Dershowitz are all over the place in political and legal controversies but have been unable to engineer comebacks. For the two, the risks being taken are not paying off.

Digital media, whose approach from the get-go had been to put colliding points of view in play, is learning that lesson. Semafor documents that most digital media platforms are struggling. Already BuzzFeed News is shutting down. Vice hunts for a buyer. Gawker 2.0 didn’t last long. Stealing some of their thunder has been the phenomenon of professional anonymous networks (PANs) such as Blind, Reddit and Fishbowl. They provide a platform for a broad variety of points of view presented by those in-the-know. The objective is to gather insider information and insight, not to be controversial per se. However, there can be clashes. In this era of massive layoffs those PANs are gaining in popularity.

In addition, there has been a confluence of forces shooting an arrow into the heart of naturally forming, contrived and oversold controversy.

One is the yearning for some semblance of normalcy. That is underlining what McKinsey is finding in youth culture: a grasping for symbols of simpler times such as the affordable drive-in. Generation Z is also trying to simulate an era before extreme polarization and gunner careerism. Boomers had experienced the comforting conformity of the Eisenhower Administration after the traumas of World War II and The Great Depression. Could social norms shift back to the calm of the ethos of the 1950s? Then broadcasting featured programming like “Lassie.”

Another prominent force field interfering with controversy is the Made in America movement. It is not only protecting American jobs and reigniting patriotism, it is a unifying force. During his first week in office President Biden issued Executive Order 14005, which mandated that more federal spending be for merchandise fulfilling the Federal Trade Commission’s definitions for Made in America.

A third is the savvy about how the persuasion game operates. No one could survive the current aggressiveness of media and marketing without being able to decode the strategies. Conservative rage about the Bud Light Mulvaney promo might well have been the immediate Ah-Ha realization: Hey, this brand is foisting “education” about values. Monday morning quarterbacks wonder: Why was that perceptual risk not accurately calculated? There are myriad quantitative and qualitative ways to do that.

Bud Light should be digesting that risk is called “risk” because it is risky. In these volatile times, in most contexts, controversy has mutated into a wild card. Anyone projecting the outcome could look very foolish. According to some media such as the New York Times, after the Dominion settlement at Fox, the assumption was that there would be a scapegoat, but no one (for example, in MAGA) fingered Carlson for that role.

As attitudes, values and dreams keep changing, so will the ways in which risk is measured and decisions about how much risk could be too much. Within the overall social system, there is also growing diversity. The homogeneous society which made the Winston gambit so effective will never be replicated.

For that reason, some organizations will make it their business to attempt to steer clear of it. “Not another Bud Light” could be their mantra. But they likely will be unable to duck it. Others could keep manufacturing Fox-like issue upheavals. There will always be takers for that. All that artificial excitement is seductive. The majority probably will assume that they can size up the potential in conflict and exploit it. However, all should anticipate the unexpected. Because of controversy, organizations and individual careers are reeling and likely will continue to do so.


Jane Genova is an award-winning content-creator for human-resources communications and an intuitive career coach. For complimentary consultation: text 203-468-8579 or [email protected].