Edgy Marketing: Too Risky, or Worth a Shot?

Edgy marketing exists due to the kind of reasoning that sounds something like “This’ll really shake people up,” or “They’ll be talking about this for ages.”  To a degree, those are both desirable outcomes for a brand… or are they?  Welcome to the high-risk, high-reward world of edgy marketing.

Also known as controversial marketing, and occasionally shock marketing, it pretty much exists as it sounds: “a tactic whereby a brand intentionally offends or surprises audience [sic] by violating the norms of social and personal values and morals.  The aim is to generate debate and discussion, and subsequent buzz around your brand.” 

Of course, all ‘shock’ is not made equal, as the definition above hints at when it includes ‘offends or surprises’ (italics mine).  Of course, violating norms is not an exact science—what might be ‘surprising’ to you might be ‘highly offensive’ to the viewer.  And if five people are turned away from your brand and five are attracted… was your marketing successful, or not?

Time for a case study—a little side-by-side reality to undergird our discussion.  The norm being violated in both instances?  Honesty. 

Let’s call our study “Why Nobody Will Ever Forget The Blair Witch Project, and Everybody’s Already Forgotten The Fourth Kind.”

Lie to Me

Supernatural horror film The Blair Witch Project, prior to its release in 1999, was marketed with the intent to “trick potential viewers… [and] featured fake police reports… flyers and missing persons posters were handed out to lead audiences into believing that the students featured in the movie did disappear, and that The Blair Witch Project was a true story.” 

This marketing was wildly successful.  It brought people in, and from there, the film’s found-footage style, intensity, infinitesimal budget and absolutely unstoppable word-of-mouth promotion took over. The Blair Witch Project quickly became “one of the most successful independent films in recent memory” and eventually generated two sequels, multiple comics and books, and a video game.

2009’s The Fourth Kind, an alien abduction picture, had less success with the “trick them in and wow them” approach.  Less success, in this context, meant critical and popular revulsion, as well as “legal troubles for the production” due to the types of lies employed.

Discretion as the Better Part of Marketing

The Blair Witch Project couched its lies in a young internet, whose reliability (in both functionality and trustworthiness) wasn’t well established. It made its lies out of whole cloth, and used found-footage in a time when the medium was surprising to audiences.

The Fourth Kind’s marketing team, by contrast, were forced to admit they’d made “phony news articles and claimed [real] Alaskan journalists had written them, and also used real news stories without permission.”  And they had done all of this in the era of rapid fact-checking, social media, and found-footage’s total normalization.

This is why the failed half of our case study cratered so thoroughly. It lacked foresight, and put far too much faith in its product.  Of her ten tips for evaluating controversial marketing, The Fourth Kind clearly ignored Jean Gianfagna’s tips to “Consider the campaign’s deployment in all media,” “Evaluate the emotional impact,” and “Plan for the market’s (and the media’s) reaction.”

Three Strikes for The Fourth Kind

Deployment in all media means realizing that a marketing campaign is not a stake driven in the earth.  It will be spread, via other media, word of mouth, and back again.  This is a serious problem when you are co-opting media outlets, without giving any credit, to promote your movie.

It’s worse in the face of the emotional impact: some of these stories were about actual disappearances in Alaska. That’s right: the filmmakers were saying that the aliens from their movie abducted those real people.  And they were doing it under the byline of a real journalist, without permission (this really can’t be emphasized enough).  This kind of behavior tends to produce emotions that, to put it very lightly, steer folks away from a movie.

Finally, there was no plan for any reaction other than a positive one.  The Fourth Kind’s release brought a rapid backlash, and the filmmakers didn’t have anything prepared to mitigate the damages. So, caught, they came clean. Never let there be said that there’s no such thing as bad PR.

Quality Speaks Louder than Reality

Remember that The Blair Witch Project’s lies weren’t written on the backs of real missing people.  They did not twist real journalism to fit their plot. But was there no backlash at the lies? Were people really okay with being deceived?

Put simply, yes.  Very, very much so, for one simple reason: The Blair Witch Project is a great film.  The performances are incredible, especially since they were mostly improvised. The camera work is strong, the woods are oppressive; on almost every scale, it’s a fun, scary time at the movies.

Moreover, The Blair Witch Project‘s lies strengthened its appeal in a crucial way: “If people were convinced of its truthfulness, it must be a pretty scary and strong movie,” went the conventional wisdom.  When audiences saw and loved it, word of mouth maintained the film’s popularity.  “It’s not real, but you have to see it.”

Gianfagna’s final tip: “Trust your own judgment.”  If you believe in your product, and you’re sure that the risk of edgy marketing will be outweighed by your offering, you’re probably in good shape.

Bad Pitch, Worse Flick

Conversely, The Fourth Kind is mediocre, and its edgy marketing didn’t double down on a strong work. The Fourth Kind is derivative, badly paced, and aside from a few moments of good special effects (and the performance of the ever-earnest Milla Jovovich), boring.

The film’s marketing was a last-ditch, go-for-broke effort that missed the mark by miles.  Even a good movie would’ve had quite the upward climb to get out of a marketing hole that deep. One like The Fourth Kind didn’t have a chance.

Here Endeth the Lesson

Here endeth the lesson.  Edgy marketing can create a watershed moment, as it did for The Blair Witch Project, or a smoking crater, as it did for The Fourth Kind.  The practice is, in a lot of ways, an exercise in gambling.  You can adjust the odds to a certain degree, but predicting public reaction has never been an exact science.

High risk, high reward: edgy marketing will always live in this dangerous divide.  Use at your own risk.