4 of the Most Controversial Ads: What Marketers Can Learn

Advertising campaigns can get complicated. When executed well, they can generate sales, increase consumer loyalty, and elevate brand awareness. However, some advertisements become memorable for controversial reasons. 

In this guide, we’ll take a look at some of the most controversial ads over the last five years. We’ll also discuss the pros and cons of controversial marketing. 

4 Examples of Controversial YouTube Ads

An ad is too controversial if it causes negative reactions with its offensive, tasteless, or harmful content, or if the ad’s environment is offensive, regardless of the ad’s content. According to a CMO Council survey, 48% of adult consumers would rethink purchasing from a brand whose ads run alongside offensive content. 

Let’s take a look at four examples of controversial YouTube ads.   

1. Nike: “Just Do It” (2018)

One of the most widely-talked-about ads was Nike’s Just Do It commercial with former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. The ad spoke volumes about self-preservation and belief in oneself. However, many viewers didn’t respond well to the casting decision in light of the spokesperson’s controversial actions of kneeling during the national anthem.  

2. Gillette: “We Believe the Best Men Can Be” (2019)

Gillette’s We Believe the Best Men Can Be is a classic case of more harm than good. While the ad does a solid job of raising awareness of toxic masculinity (through various behaviors), some felt the commercial generalized men, prompting negative responses from viewers. The message had good intentions, but the execution was poor. 

3. McDonald’s: “Dead Dad” (2017)

To some, McDondald’s Dead Dad commercial came off as insensitive for using a grieving child to promote fast food products. Sure, the ad did a great job of tapping into the emotional side of viewers, but the idea of using psychological grief for service promotion left a bad taste in some people’s mouths. 

4. Tesco: “Nothing’s Stopping Us” (2021) 

In 2021, Tesco released their Nothing’s Stopping Us holiday ad, featuring a Santa Claus with a vaccination passport so he didn’t have to be quarantined. As you can imagine, the ad sparked controversy, especially from vaccination skeptics.

Tesco did a great job combining a catchy tune with holiday joy to give viewers a memorable ad. However, the company ignited controversy by bringing up a topic that sparks divisive attitudes.  

Controversial Advertising Tactics

Controversial ad campaigns can be cost-effective in helping helps brands rise above the competition. However, if you get too controversial, you risk alienating your consumers while causing sales to plummet. If you decide to get creative with your marketing campaign with some controversy, it’s vital that you follow some standards.

Here is what you need to understand about running a successful campaign built on controversy:

1. Focus on Conversations

Find a creative way to get people talking about your brand without straying from decency; this means avoiding topics such as politics, religion, war, or anything sure to evoke anger and hostility. The key is to increase viewership and brand recognition without causing an unnecessary uproar. 

2. Align with Brand Values

Releasing a controversial ad can be a smart tactic if you find a way to tie it back to your brand’s values. How can you remain authentic? What underlying message do you want viewers to take away from your ad? Nike’s “Just Do It” 2018 ad featuring professional athlete Colin Kaepernick is a prime example of smart controversy.    


While the company featured a sports figure who faced national scrutiny, Nike stuck with its brand message of bringing inspiration to every athlete. 

3. Have a Crisis Plan Ready

Sometimes, controversy won’t pay off. When negative receptions overflow your company’s social media pages, have a crisis plan ready; this means taking appropriate measures to mitigate any reputation damage. 

Identify company personnel responsible for responding to the backlash. Remain empathetic when responding to consumer complaints. Finally, ensure you consider feedback from customers for future campaigns. 

Controversial ad campaigns are tricky. While your company can use them to incentivize consumer conversions and make a memorable impression, they can also destroy your brand’s reputation in the long run. So when is the right time for you to take risks? 

If your company can tap into popular discussions as part of a marketing strategy to increase engagement without causing harm, then take the risk. Remember to remain authentic by aligning your content with your brand’s image. 

Maximize Ad Performance with Channel Factory

The most controversial ads leave memorable impressions on consumers. The key is to assess your intentions, remain true to your brand’s values, and respond appropriately if your ads cause public harm.

Channel Factory can help your company remain true to its image. Our contextual targeting solutions ensure your ads run with relevant content that makes sense for your brand.   

Contact us today to discover how we can help your brand succeed!