“Wanna Buy A Scandal?”: Unpicking The Response To Controversial Ads

Like most European cities, the streets of Hamburg’s tourist quarter play host to rose sellers, whose cry “Wolle Rose kaufen?” (“wanna buy a rose?”) has become wearily familiar to the city’s population. Local beer brand Astra saw the opportunity for a pun – “Wolle Dose kaufen?”, AKA “wanna buy a can?” and put up posters with the slogan in some of Hamburg’s busiest districts.

So far, so ordinary. But Astra ran into trouble. A lot of Hamburg’s rose-sellers come from the city’s immigrant communities, and the beer brand chose to illustrate their gag with a picture of a South Asian man (in a mermaid outfit), playing on local stereotypes.

Users on social media – including left-wing football club St Pauli, who the brand sponsors – accused Astra of racism. Astra defended itself, pointing to its long heritage of cheeky posters – some of which have also landed it in hot water, though generally for sexist imagery. But nonetheless the Carlsberg-owned brand took the “Wolle Dose Kaufen?” poster down.

(You can see the poster, and read a German account of the controversy, here)

With the controversy raging, the media got in touch with System1 to find out what the German public thought of the ad. Offensive or not?

The topline score tells us that while the ad may have been polarising, it wasn’t necessarily good. Astra’s “WOLLE DOSE KAUFEN?” scores 2-Stars, suggesting there’s room for only modest long-term brand growth. It’s a deeply average score. For an ad creating waves in the headlines, it offers little more than a ripple when presented to the general public.

But was its relatively mediocre performance down to its potential racism? Above is a breakdown of emotions felt by those taking the survey: respondents were asked to specify how the advert made them feel, and why. For non-German speakers readng this, negative comments labelled the billboard as ‘completely ridiculous’ but mentioned the mermaid motif, not its race. Conversely a number of people considered it to be funny and different. The main emotions felt were surprise (25%), and happiness (25%), closely followed by contempt (15%).

It’s only when respondents were asked ‘What 3 things come to mind when you think of this advert?’ (Key Associations) that a couple of responses deemed the advert to be offensive, but the predominant feedback suggested an underwhelming ad, which failed to provoke its audience to more than irritation.

What lessons does this hold for controversial advertising in general? In the social media age, ads find themselves under attack from all sides: for every Astra or Heineken accused of racism, there’s a Tesco or Coke attacked for being too diverse. We’ve found in our tests that these criticisms very rarely filter through to the general public. That’s not to let Astra off the hook – it’s not unusual for subtly racist stereotypes to go unnoticed except  by the people who they particularly target. But whether the ad was offensive or not, people didn’t particularly like or respond to it.

And this is probably the most important takeaway. It’s very rare for good, emotional, high-scoring ads to run into social media trouble to the point of being pulled by a brand. Positive emotion seems to put people in a forgiving mood. The public might not register a controversial ad as “offensive” but it might seem – like this Astra poster – boring or just plain “stupid” instead. Which – from a growth perspective – is the truly risky strategy.

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