Brushbox have recently come under fire for their marketing campaign, in which they asked first-year students at Sussex university if they ‘spit or swallow’ on controversial beer mats. With such a clear and graphic sexual innuendo brandished across the front, they soon came under fire on social media for ‘sexual harassment’ and producing content that is ‘degrading’, ‘intimidating’ and ‘hateful’ towards women and girls.

The University of Sussex sent out a tweet saying “We can absolutely see why this promotional material in @USSU fresher’s packs has sparked such a strong reaction” and assured their followers that the reaction would be fed back to the company responsible.

Sussex Students’ Union meanwhile sent out a tweet saying “We were very disappointed to find this promotional material in our Dig-In boxes, and we will be reviewing our relationship with the supplier in future.” The company responsible for distributing the marketing collateral is Dig-In Box, who partnered alongside Brushbox and other suppliers to create special deals for students.

brushbox marketing campaign

Brushbox, whose company marketing sparked such outrage, dealt with the concerns on Mumset directly, saying “The image was meant to be tongue-in-cheek and spark awareness for what is a serious issue, namely the fact that huge portions of the population suffer with really poor oral health… Whilst our image was intended to raise eyebrows, at no point in time was it ever our intention to cause outright offence.”

In many respects, the events that have unfurled make for the perfect case study for marketing gone wrong.

In many respects, the events that have unfurled make for the perfect case study for marketing gone wrong. No one would ever want such negative publicity for their business, or to be accused of degrading women. It’s a perfect example of what happens when you miss the mark with your communications, and don’t tailor what you’re saying to your audience appropriately. While many businesses can pull off tongue-in-cheek advertising, you have to be very brave and bold (and careful) with this strategy – and it’s one that not many employ without due care and consideration.

In other respects, you could argue that perhaps Brushbox have had better publicity from this than they could have ever expected. It has certainly got everyone talking, both online and offline, albeit not just about oral health. More people know about the business than ever before now. They’ve been featured in various mainstream papers and social feeds without paying a penny in advertising, and their beer mats have been shared widely on social media, gaining a great deal of organic exposure.

They’ve been featured in various mainstream papers and social feeds without paying a penny in advertising, and their beer mats have been shared widely on social media, gaining a great deal of organic exposure.

All of this will no doubt help them from an SEO perspective with Google (they currently rank number 2 for ‘toothbrush subscription’ searches), although there will always be the link to the campaign backlash. The beer mats themselves were no doubt not hugely expensive to produce, so all-in-all, you could say the amount of exposure they have got has been good return-on-investment.

When assessing the success of the campaign, it all comes down to whether or not you subscribe to the philosophy of ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ and ‘bad publicity is better than no publicity’. It’s a term known in French as Succès de scandale, which translates to ‘success from scandal’. It is a term that has been attributed in the past to many artistic works whose success (either in whole or in part) has been achieved by the public controversy surrounding the work. In some cases, the controversy caused the audience to seek the work out for themselves so they could see the titillating content, and in other cases, it simply served to heighten public curiosity.

When assessing the success of the campaign, it all comes down to whether or not you subscribe to the philosophy of ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ and ‘bad publicity is better than no publicity’.

Brushbox aren’t alone in courting marketing controversy to get themselves noticed in the noisy commercial landscape. Poundland came under fire in 2017 for their ‘naughty elf’ campaign, in which brands featured within the images distanced themselves from the somewhat ‘crude’ messaging.

They had a marketing budget of just £25. Despite the adverts ultimately finding themselves banned by the Advertising Standards Authority and numerous complaints received, Poundland’s marketing director, Mark Pym, claimed the campaign was a great success. It got a great deal of exposure and write-ups – and ultimately, did it stop people shopping in Poundland? Most likely not. For all the people who disliked the campaign (as with Brushbox), there are also many who saw the humour in it and didn’t find a problem – claiming others were being too politically correct.

poundland naughty elf marketing fail

Ultimately, it comes down to a brand to make the final decision based on what type of reputation they want to build and how they want to be perceived. For some brands, tongue-in-cheek marketing is a core part of their messaging, and is something that you often see from the likes of Innocent Smoothies and Benefit Cosmetics.

This comes down to how well it tows the line with sensitive contextual issues, such as feminism, racism, equality and discrimination.

However, for others, it can feel forced and inappropriate, and is deemed to not hit the mark. This comes down to how well it tows the line with sensitive contextual issues, such as feminism, racism, equality and discrimination. If done well (and without causing offence to any group of individuals), it can catapult a brand, build fun and laughter into messaging, and increase loyalty and brand recognition.

If done badly, it can isolate potential customers and cause a whole lot of outrage. It can also lead to a great deal of time and money being required to rebuild your brand image (outweighing the benefits of the potential campaign hits), which can take a massive knock from the negative publicity. Ultimately, it’s down to your brand to decide if this potential outcome is positive or not, and then tread carefully!

Innocent smoothies orange juice marketing campaign

What are your thoughts on tongue-in-cheek marketing? Let us know @weareaphra.

For help building successful marketing campaigns, get in touch with us today: grace@weareaphra.co.uk