Poor Taste Marketing: Is Bad Publicity Still Good Publicity?

If you didn’t get a chance to see the Academy Award nominated, all singing and all dancing masterpiece that was The Greatest Showman earlier this year, please stop reading right now and go watch it (use whatever means necessary). It’s not often that someone tells you to stop reading their article for two hours and do something illegal.

I promise I won’t call the po-po.

Now that you’re back, I want to draw your attention to a quote famously attributed to P. T. Burnam, The Greatest Showman himself: There’s no such thing as bad publicity”.

I’d rate this movie the same number of abs Zac Efron has, 8/6.

It’s a whole new world

If we turn back the clock I’m sure we’d find some truth to Burnam’s words, particularly considering it was much harder to circulate information and get a brand’s name out there via boats, snail mail and pigeons. But in 2018, our reality is a little different.

With technology advancing 10x faster than I can run (that ain’t hard), and converging on a global scale, it affords mass circulation of content via the internet. We live in a world where you can find out your favourite B-grade celebrity Starbucks order and find out what type of cheese you are, all before getting out of bed in the morning.

If you were wondering: I like my frappe with cinnamon and I got ‘cheddar cheese’ (just a basic white bitch here).

We’re surrounded by an over saturation of advertising, instant gratification and clickbait, so capturing attention – be it good or bad – seems to be a way to cut through the noise. And with our attention being commodified and very valuable to a brand, that negative reaction can still generate exposure at the end of the day.

But, can the bad really still be good for brands?

I’m sure the Grill’d marketing execs asked this exact question when they were coming up with their Easter campaign two years ago. If you weren’t aware, Grill’d and Easter haven’t made the best combo deal.

Let’s catch hop you up to speed. *Knee slap*

In 2017, instead of a limited edition dessert chocolate burger to celebrate Easter –  which would have been my choice – the Grill’d marketing team had another idea. They launched an ‘ethically sourced‘ rabbit, pork belly and duck-fat pattied burger: the Bunny Burger.

Grill’d founder Simon Crowe said they wanted to “give people an opportunity to be more experimental with their food choices”. And by experimental, he really meant exploiting an industry that’s far from ‘ethically sourced’.



It hopped onto the menu in select stores across the country, whilst outraged customers hopped online to share their opinions. Vegans, vegetarians, animal rights activists and those with a moral compass spiralled down the rabbit hole and launched an online assault against Grill’d, fuelled by their distaste and bewilderment. They were nearly as mad as the mad hatter.

One commenter even thought of their next campaign for them:

“Wow. The cognitive dissonance is strong. What’s next? A horse burger for Melbourne Cup? Since you’re bringing out pet burgers now. When are the dog and cat burgers coming out?”

What sparked a great deal of the hate was the comical and nonchalant approach of the promotion and lack of community management to reel in the message. Making light of the questionable ethics of the industry and confronting children with the pure idea of the Easter bunny being served on their plate was far from just odious, but borderline sinful.

Despite the plethora of hate they received, Grill’d never publicly apologised. But a petition by Animal Liberation, an animal rights group, gained enough support that Grill’d went on record and said they regretted their choice and promised to “never sell rabbit meat again.

This was one experiment that didn’t pay off.

It’s always hard to follow up with a sequel, especially when the first one was such a flop (looking at you Men In Black 2). You’d think Grill’d would’ve taken the hint and just stopped while they were in front (well, behind). But in March 2018, Grill’d relaunched the infamous burger for the second year. After posting on Facebook that the Bunny Burger was back, the comment section (unsurprisingly) was quickly filled with hate and disdain once again.

However, this was all but a ruse. Later that week, they announced the burger was 100% vegan and made from rabbit food. The previous outrage felt by commenters quickly turned to a sigh of relief with a garnish of confusion.

If you’re like me, then this approach raised your eyebrows too. Once again, there was a complete lack of engagement in the days before the final reveal when a generic reply was sent to each commenter.

Bugs Bunny did not approve of this collaboration.

Why, oh why?

If they were really seeking a redemption story, then why stir the pot of controversy first when they could have simply posted the latter and skipped the hate mail?

It’s called controversial marketing; a creative name, I know

As you’d imagine, it’s a marketing strategy which uses shock tactics in order to start a dialogue and awareness of a brand’s name or product. There’s a fine line between being intriguing and being plain offensive, and getting this wrong can destroy your online reputation in the process. It’s also difficult to do without offending a key portion of your loyal audience from the get-go. With hundreds of people boycotting the franchise now, it’s safe to say they offended more than some of their loyal customers. It’s an interesting diversion from the typically inclusive branding of Grill’d and other fast-food franchises, like Zambrero and their new vegan options too.

This gimmick goes against everything in marketing and advertising ethics, from integrity, fairness and respect, to truthfulness, human dignity and social responsibility. With advertising and marketing being one of the most persuasive wombo-combos of our time, if it’s not steered with some sort of good conscience and morality, then call this ship the Titanic cus’ it gon’ sink.

Intentionally inciting hate, deceiving your audience, bending the truth and disregarding respect and social responsibilities are LITERALLY the exact opposite of what ethical practice should look like in the marketing world. And Grill’d ticked all those boxes.

The Grill’d marketing team pitching their idea.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Grill’d has never employed such a tactic before, so it’s strange that they would start now. Especially when their direct competitor Burger Urge, nail controversial marketing. Their ‘Taste Addiction‘ campaign in 2011 saw a letterbox drop of pens that looked eerily similar to a blood-filled syringe to introduce their new ‘Blue Vein’ and ‘Beef Injection’ burgers. And we can’t forget the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton burgers in the height of the USA presidential shamble in 2016. Whilst Burger Urge has had its fair share of criticism, owner Sean Carthew said they “never intend to offend when they go close to the line, but not over it“. They know their demographic and it works. So don’t worry Burger Urge, Grill’d didn’t snatch your title – or wig – this time around.

Generally, Grill’d runs an earnest happy-customer and people-focused campaign, like their ‘Local Matters campaign that supports local community and school groups. And with business performance seemingly steady with a 90.7% satisfaction rate from consumers at the end of 2017, why now to try a negative approach and get a rise out of their burger lovers? 

When they purposefully associate themselves with controversial viral gimmicks, it hinders the value and trust they’ve built over the years with their consumers. This short-term focus can strain long-term goals, especially when it ostracises their target demographic: vegans.

Attack the vegan community, they said. It’ll be a good idea, they said.

Whether or not relying on such an old gimmick proved to be worth it is up to the sales stats that I unfortunately couldn’t hamburgle (oops wrong franchise). From the outside, there sure were A LOT of angry reacts online and IRL. And with no other controversial stints since, instead actually positive ones, sounds like Grill’d has some major #ragrets.

Maybe our favourite Showman’s wise words are now just an old wise tale.

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