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Written by Bonnie Clark
on December 11, 2018

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When it comes to marketing, controversy is a little like kryptonite. You know you can tap into it to break through the clutter, but there’s also no middle ground between success and failure. It’s feast or famine. Do or die.

On the one hand, you have an example of a massive fail like Pepsi’s controversial take on the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which sparked widespread outrage and led to the brand promptly pulling the spot and issuing an apology on behalf of both the company and its star, Kendall Jenner.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Iceland Foods’ “Rang-tan”. Last month, the U.K.-based supermarket chain came out with an animated commercial to announce its ban on products that contain palm oil, a major cause of deforestation and a threat to orangutans and other wildlife. In what turns out to be a stroke of unexpected luck, the spot, made by Greenpeace, never aired on British television. Clearcast, which approves ads for broadcasters like Sky, Channel 4 and ITV, said it didn’t comply with standards around political advertising.

I say luck because the banned ad went on to become a viral sensation, with more than 30 million views on YouTube in just the past few weeks and is well on its way to becoming one of the most widely viewed campaigns on social media. What’s more, the heart-wrenching ad, which features the voice of Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson, has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media, including by some celebrities like James Corden. Clearcast had to go as far as to take down its Facebook page due to the public backlash. You can’t buy this type of attention. Literally.

So, what did Iceland do right that Pepsi did wrong? 

Don’t Be the Controversy

First, Iceland didn’t actually cause the controversy. The commercial is highly emotional but not controversial. No one is disputing the facts it lays out in the ad. What caused the uproar was Clearcast’s decision to ban the commercial. Iceland simply needed to ride the wave. And, in fact, it’s doing just that. Above and beyond amplifying on social media, Iceland has since deployed a life-size animatronic orangutan to walk the streets of London, which has helped to keep the conversation going.

In stark contrast, Pepsi co-opted and whitewashed a serious social justice cause to sell more soda. Not exactly subtle—and the campaign, rightly, backfired. 

It’s Not About You

The Ran-Tan ad keeps the spotlight on deforestation, not the supermarket. In fact, Greenpeace actually created the video; Iceland simply repackaged it with a caption at the very end saying the company will remove all palm oil from its private-label products. That’s the only mention of the brand in the entire one-minute, 32-second video. By keeping the attention on the cause, not the brand, the supermarket doesn’t look like it’s trying to profit off a serious situation. Over the past few years, the public has become pretty savvy to greenwashing—and Iceland avoids falling victim to that fate.

With the “Black Lives Matter” video, Pepsi did the exact opposite. It inserted itself squarely into a highly charged atmosphere with a “kumbaya” message that makes light of a life-and-death problem. The video was all about Pepsi, and it likewise came across as crass and self-serving. End of story.

Have a Connection to the Cause

Iceland is in a position to actually help the cause. As the first U.K. supermarket to ban palm oil in its own products, the company is making a positive impact and setting the stage for what could eventually be a broader movement. The cause fits.

Again, compare that to Pepsi. What can a soda brand really do to address racial inequality in the criminal justice system? It makes about as much sense as Starbucks’ failed #RaceTogether campaign.

 In the end, there’s nothing wrong with stirring the pot as long as your mission and message are authentic.

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