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5 Best Controversial Ads and Why They Worked

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Why Creating Controversial Ads Can Be A Winning Move

Advertising is often about taking risks, and sometimes, the biggest risk is stirring up controversy. 

This blog looks at five ads that did just that – they sparked debates, challenged norms, and in the end, they were hugely successful. These aren't just stories of controversial ads that got people talking; they're lessons in bold marketing and the power of standing out.

We'll explore each ad in detail, from Nike's "Dream Crazy" to Benetton's "Unhate" campaign. 

Isaiah Mustafa in an Old Spice ad


This blog is for anyone interested in the art of controversial ads,  whether you're in the industry or just appreciate powerful marketing

The Power of Controversy in Video Advertising

Why do controversial ads grab our attention? It's simple: they make us think, react, and sometimes, even feel uncomfortable. And that's exactly what makes them so powerful. 

In video advertising, when a brand chooses to step into the realm of controversy, it's not just trying to sell a product; it's attempting to connect with the audience on a deeper level.

two speech bubbles representing controversy

Image via Flaticon

Controversial ads often tackle bold themes, challenge societal norms, or present unexpected viewpoints. They stand out in a sea of standard commercials because they demand our attention and provoke discussion. 

Whether it’s making a statement on social issues or just breaking stereotypes, these ads leave a lasting impression.

But it's not just about being bold for the sake of it. Successful controversial ads are those that strike the right balance. 

They're thought-provoking without being offensive, and daring without being disrespectful. They know their audience well and how to push the boundaries just enough to make a point, without crossing the line.

1. Nike: "Dream Crazy" (2018)


In 2018, Nike released one of their most controversial ads that would become one of the most talked-about campaigns of the decade. 

The ad featured Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who had become a polarizing figure for kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality. 

Video via YouTube


The choice of Kaepernick as the face of the campaign ignited a fierce debate across the nation. It’s one of the controversial ads that polarized opinions, with some viewing it as a brave stand on social issues, while others saw it as disrespectful to the flag and the military. 


Despite the initial backlash, the "Dream Crazy" campaign was a resounding success for Nike. 

The company's stock price soared, and online sales reportedly jumped by 31% in the days following the ad's release. The campaign won an Emmy for outstanding commercial and was praised for its courage in taking a stand on a divisive issue. 

It showed that Nike understood its core customer base, many of whom supported Kaepernick's stance. By aligning with the values of its audience, Nike strengthened its brand identity and deepened customer loyalty.

2. Dove: "Real Beauty" (2004)


Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign, launched in 2004, was a groundbreaking move in the beauty industry. This is of one the controversial ads that shifted away from the typical portrayal of beauty in advertising, which often featured models with idealized, unattainable looks. 

Instead, Dove chose to showcase real women of various ages, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities, breaking the industry's standard beauty mold.

Dove Real Beauty campaign featuring a diverse group of women in underwear

Image via ResearchGate


While the campaign was hailed for its inclusivity and realistic portrayal of women, it also faced its share of criticism as one of its more controversial ads.  

Some accused Dove of patronizing the very audience it was trying to empower, suggesting that the campaign implied these women were brave simply for being comfortable in their own skin. 


Despite these criticisms, the "Real Beauty" campaign was a major success for Dove. It sparked a global conversation about beauty standards and body positivity, leading to a significant increase in sales. 

The controversial ads campaign’s impact extended beyond immediate commercial success; it paved the way for more inclusive and diverse representations of beauty in the advertising world.

 Dove established itself as a brand that understood and championed real women, creating a strong emotional connection with its audience.

3. Snickers: "You're Not You When You're Hungry" (2010)


Launched in 2010, Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign with controversial ads that took a humorous approach to advertise their product. 

The campaign's central idea was simple yet relatable: hunger can turn you into a different person. It featured various celebrities, including Betty White and Liza Minnelli, acting out of character in everyday situations, only to return to their usual selves after eating a Snickers bar.

Video via YouTube


While the campaign was generally well-received, it wasn't without its critics. Some viewers found certain portrayals, especially those involving gender and age stereotypes, to be offensive.


Despite these criticisms, the campaign was an enormous success. It resonated with a wide audience due to its humor and relatable premise, becoming one of the most recognizable ad campaigns globally. 

It also showcased the power of using celebrity endorsements effectively, as the stars' unexpected behavior in the controversial ads created memorable and entertaining content.

4. Old Spice: "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" (2010)


Old Spice rejuvenated its brand image with the 2010 "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign. It featured Isaiah Mustafa delivering humorous monologues in surreal, fast-paced sequences, presenting an over-the-top and humorous take on masculinity.

Video via YouTube


The ad's portrayal of hyper-masculinity and its tongue-in-cheek approach to gender stereotypes stirred debate. Some viewers criticized it for reinforcing outdated gender norms under the guise of humor.


This campaign was a viral sensation, significantly boosting Old Spice's sales and brand recognition. The ad's quirky humor, combined with clever scriptwriting and an engaging performance by Mustafa, captured the audience's imagination. 

It demonstrated the effectiveness of humor and originality in rebranding efforts, making Old Spice relevant to a younger audience.

5. Benetton: "Unhate" (2011)


In 2011, Benetton released the "Unhate" campaign, one of the most controversial ads known for its provocative images of world leaders kissing. 

Among the most notable were digitally altered images of Pope Benedict XVI kissing an imam and U.S. President Obama kissing Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. The campaign aimed to promote tolerance and combat hate.

Benetton Unhate picture featuring world leaders kissing

Image via ABC


The "Unhate" campaign was immediately met with controversy. The image of the Pope kissing the imam was particularly contentious, leading the Vatican to condemn it as disrespectful. 

Critics accused Benetton of using shock tactics and exploiting sensitive subjects for commercial gain.


Despite the backlash and the eventual withdrawal of the most controversial images, the "Unhate" campaign achieved its goal of drawing global attention. It sparked conversations about tolerance and the power of provocative imagery in advertising. 

The campaign won awards for its creativity and boldness, reaffirming Benetton's reputation as a brand unafraid to tackle social issues head-on.

Benetton's "Unhate" serves as a striking example of how advertising can be used as a tool for social commentary, demonstrating the fine line between creating impactful messages and provoking public outrage.

Make Some Noise With Controversial Ads 

Controversial ads have always been a bold choice in the world of marketing. As we've seen from campaigns like Nike's "Dream Crazy" and Dove's "Real Beauty," they have the power to spark conversations, challenge norms, and leave a lasting impression. 

Homer Simpson breaking his glasses due to reading something shocking


These campaigns show us that controversy, when handled with insight and creativity, can transcend mere advertising to become a part of cultural dialogue.

While not without risks, these ads demonstrate the potential rewards of daring to be different. They remind us that in an increasingly cluttered media landscape, sometimes the most memorable messages are those that aren't afraid to push boundaries. 

For brands looking to make a significant impact, these examples offer valuable lessons in courage, innovation, and the art of resonating with audiences on a deeper level.

Looking to create your own impactful ad? With a wealth of experience and a track record of producing over 8000 plus videos, Promoshin can offer you the kind of high-caliber videos that not only capture attention but also drive action. 

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