German car brand, Volkswagen, combines humour, current affairs and a pinch of controversy to create many innovative and inventive adverts. Considering that the VW Polo is one of 2017’s best-selling cars in the UK, its sometimes-daring approach to marketing appears to be working very well.

But do brands need to know the line and not cross it when it comes to controversial marketing tactics? VW dealership, Vindis, has looked at how Volkswagen pushes fun and controversy to sell its cars and explores whether smaller businesses can do the same.

The VW Polo billboard and shoot-out adverts

Volkswagen marketing is so successful because it focuses on its product’s USP and capitalises on it. A great example of this is how it advertised the supermini. With the tag line ‘one benefit of the new Polo is that you can park it anywhere’, the advertisement shows a Supermini parked on top of the billboard, which is a good example of how to use humour effectively.

Size and strength are key to Volkswagen cars, which the brand also uses to its advantage in marketing. For instance; one campaign that made the most of this ‘small but tough’ idea occurred in 2003. This ad showed a dozen police officers taking cover behind the VW Polo during a gun shoot-out, which was a clever way to get across the resilience aspect to the audience.

The VW Polo elephant advert

Tried and tested ads are a safe bet if you’re new to the game or have a lot to lose. But it’s also crucial that your marketing campaign reflects current affairs and trends. In fact, Volkswagen is known for piggy-backing on news to keep its advertising campaigns fresh. Take the ‘elephant campaign’, for example. Around 2014, an image of an elephant using a Volkswagen Polo as a scratching post went viral. Volkswagen leapt on this free advertising and made it work to its profitable advantage by using it as part of its campaign, suggesting that the car comes with ‘elephant impact protection as standard’.

Since this was a real image, it made the campaign newsworthy. On top of that, it was very popular online, so the audience already existed. And the final finishing touch was humour, which was evident in the tongue-in-cheek tagline. Basically, Volkswagen saw an opportunity to utilise the image in its favour — tactfully making the most of its ‘small but tough’ slogan.

Jumping on a viral trend is commonplace for corporate brands today. In fact, it’s likely that Volkswagen would have not seen the image had it not been for social media, and the rise of digitalisation and social media apps has allowed advertisers and brands to make the most of ‘viral marketing’ as a tool to spread information.

How people react to controversial advertising

Brands and marketing executives must always bear in mind that advertising is subjective. What one person might find hilarious, another might despise. So, what’s the secret? Many people think the trick is to be clever with your message and imagery and never set out to disgust just to get your name out there. With 30% of men and women admitting they avoided purchasing from brands with distasteful advertising campaigns, businesses need to be careful how they approach marketing campaigns.

Controversial marketing tactics and your company

Being controversial and risqué can be a quick and clever way to get your brand out there and promote your services. But, you should always be cautious if this is your strategy. We recommend avoiding anything to do with religion, racism, sexuality, and politics (politics as it’s typically divisive).

If you’re a start-up or small company, it’s worth considering side-stepping controversy for now and instead focusing on keeping up to date with viral trends. SMEs should be active on social media for the best chances of exposure and free advertising with any type of budget. Remember, it’s free to set up a social media profile.

Don’t be controversial for no reason — this could seriously backfire. Just keep your eye on what’s trending online and try to catch your audience’s attention with a positive, funny or thought-provoking campaign.