Risqué Ads: The Good, The Bad, and When They’re Right for Your Brand

Conor McCann, Copywriter

Today’s media landscape is a chaotic stream of attention-seeking tidbits, seemingly flying through your phone, TV, computer and just about any sightline at warp speed. So, naturally, for advertisers and marketers, standing out is necessary. But standing out for the right reasons is critical.

Want to create standout content for the right reasons? Let’s Talk. 

We see examples of controversial creative advertising annually, monthly and sometimes daily. Occasionally the controversy is calculated – capitalizing on the moment to turn eyeballs into earned brand equity. Other times it’s misguided, or not intentional at all. 

Let’s explore several risqué ads – funny ads, powerful ads, and some ads not as funny or powerful as they were trying to be – that popped out at us, examine why they caught our attention and determine if they were ultimately successful branding opportunities from a metrics or a feel-good standpoint. 

THE GOOD 

1. Prost8 Awareness

For Cancer Awareness Month, Prost8 set out to debunk a myth about prostate exams. They created simple – cheeky, no less – posters that look like a person’s behind, but upon closer inspection surprisingly reveal it’s their arm. The idea is that a prostate exam is as easy as a routine blood test, which is commonly unknown. This campaign is a huge win.  

Prost8 Awareness Campaign

Why this campaign works:

  • Simple, but brilliant
  • Catches attention without being offensive
  • Memorable because it makes people think for the right reasons

2. Burger King's 70th Anniversary

This campaign is great. It’s celebrating the burger chain’s 70th anniversary by letting people know that the flame they grill their patties on is still burning fervently. It’s different from what you typically see from BK, but it’s still aligned with their values. It’s somewhat silly, and aspirational for food lovers of any age – while they might be getting older, they can always remain young at heart. 

Screen Shot 2024-06-10 at 12.57.44 PM

Why this campaign works:

  • Risqué in a way that's relatable
  • Aligns with Burger King's brand values
  • Silly, like much of their work, but in an aspirational way

3. e.l.f. Change the Board Game

This cosmetics company is branching out of its specialty area to try and foster societal change – and they’re starting at the top. “So Many Dicks, So Few of Everyone Else” might catch you off guard at first, but the message is progressive beyond the play on words. This campaign works largely because it’s so unexpected from E.L.F., which makes it feel like it’s coming from the heart. It’s super irreverent, obviously, so viewers beg to learn more, and it’s ultimately an issue that the public at large can’t deny – the change just needs a voice. It needs a seat at the table, and E.L.F. is helping it claim that seat, hopefully soon.

 

Why this campaign works:

  • Unexpected from this brand, but on point for their primarily female target audience
  • Irreverent and tonally sound
  • Ultimately, it's a rallying cry that can bring people together

THE BAD 

1. Pepsi "Live for Now"

2017’s Live for Now ad from Pepsi lived for less than 24 hours. That’s it. It was a massively misguided, tone-def swing that was almost immediately and categorically panned, and for good reason. The cringe was induced far and wide as soon as it aired, and the brand removed it and issued an apology. This one doesn’t need a novel to evaluate – it offended the public, writ large, misaligned with the brand’s values, and it made people think for the wrong reason: it made them squirm. 

 

Why this campaign doesn't work:

  • Easily understood as offensive to the public. 
  • Doesn’t align with Pepsi’s brand values. 
  • Tone-deaf and tries too hard to take a stance on a delicate, hotly debated issue. 

2. Peloton "The Gift That Gives Back"

In 2019, Peloton decreased in value by about $1.5B after releasing this “sexist and dystopian” ad. That’s a pretty good indication that this wasn’t exactly a success for the home fitness brand. But more importantly, the messaging strategy behind the ad was ill-judged and unwarranted. The messages our ads convey to the world are typically deemed successful when they champion a widely-agreed-upon narrative to the public. Peloton did the opposite of that – they brought an old way of thinking to the fore and it backfired, unsurprisingly.  

 

Why this campaign doesn't work:

  • Based on an ill-judged premise
  • Messaging strategy is sexist
  • Made people think for the wrong reasons

ARE THEY RIGHT FOR YOUR BRAND?

Cheeky ads are great for your brand when they’re done well, catch attention, don’t offend, align with your brand values and make people think for the right reasons. In fact, they’re often tinged with the magic every creative hopes to achieve in this business. 

When they’re done poorly, the results can be disastrous – and go viral in the blink of an eye. 

At the end of the day, we want every eyeball on an ad to blink, wink and finally twinkle because it just saw something that made that person wonder why they hadn’t thought of it themselves.

That is a “win” for a fiercely creative idea. And that’s our aim here at Hart. 

Want to learn more about creating irreverent advertising that will transform your brand for the better?