7 Ways Daring Brands Walk The Line

How do brands straddle that fine line between engaging and offending? What happens when the unreasonable objections of rampant political correctness threaten to stifle their best ideas and creative content? Here are a few guideposts to successfully pushing boundaries–without turning people off.


I recently watched the 1966 movie Blow-Up. As the movie trailer warns, director Michelangelo Antonioni’s “camera never flinches” from the “dazzle and the madness of London today!” It’s a great movie that weaves the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll scene of the mid-1960s into the life of a “wild” fashion photographer. These were the holy trinity of shocking topics of the day, but the movie seems tame and quaint by today’s standards. Which leads one to ask–does anything shock us anymore?

People want to feel alive. We want to have new experiences and see things that surprise, inspire, or yes, even shock us a little. But we live in an Internet-exposed world that gives us all we want, raw and in real time, and we have an “I’ve seen it all before” attitude about everything. Yet companies are more cautious in this politically correct, overly litigious, and socially enabled environment. According to, consumers are “able to handle much more honest conversations, more daring innovations, more quirky flavors, more risqué experiences–these consumers increasingly appreciate brands that push the boundaries.” So companies had better figure out how to let their brands thrive in today’s world.

Just where is that boundary, and just how daring are today’s marketers? How do they straddle that fine line between engaging and offending? What happens when the unreasonable objections of rampant political correctness threaten to stifle their best ideas and creative content? Here are a few guideposts to follow in searching for ideas in advertising that could break through.

Understand that it’s all relative: What is offensive to me might make you laugh. What works with a male audience might be way off the mark for women. Regions, religions, and races all possess socially acceptable norms. Because the Internet makes everything accessible to everyone all the time, whatever you do–anything you do–that is remotely controversial will be criticized by someone. Get used to it. You can’t be universally loved and hope to shock people. They don’t go hand in hand. Find the courage to speak to your consumers in a way they will love and care less about what the “others” will say about your brand. See what K-Swiss’ “CEO” Kenny Powers says.

Give them a surprise rather than a shock: Shock makes us stop. Surprise makes us think. Brands need to build relationships that are lasting. Just shocking someone doesn’t mean they will think about or engage with your brand. For a brand to engage, quite often that means getting them to rethink what role the brand could play in their lives. If you do things that are unexpected, fresh, and surprising for your brand, your consumers will start thinking about you in a different light. How best to be surprising? Do or say that thing you always dream of and have never dared express. Good advice in both marketing and life. (See Ally Bank.)

Let your audience help: I just saw a play in New York called Sleep No More, a wildly inventive and brave attempt to create a theatrical experience that brought the audience into a voyeuristic partnership with the actors. We became part of the show, and once you realize that you’re part of the experience, you become less critical because you feel some level of ownership. Brands need to do that same thing. Have the consumers contribute ideas and content to the brand’s story, and its relevance and appropriateness become self-regulating. (See Doritos.)


Lighten up: Companies are way too serious and afraid. I get it. Anything that is different, shocking, or surprising can create extra work and add some risk to the equation. Anything interesting you want to do with your brand will have corporate detractors. Fear drives too many corporations. But your consumers will applaud you for taking a risk, sharing a laugh, being brutally honest about the world in which your brand lives. To do something mildly interesting, let alone shocking, often takes too much effort and the best ideas die before they see the light of day. Have courage, lighten up, and do something surprising. (See Domino’s.) 

Don’t be mean-spirited: It’s easy to be shocking at someone’s expense. Don’t. (See Groupon’s much-reviled Tibet ad.) 

Realize that candor can be shocking: There is a famous ad by the explorer Ernest Shackleton that says, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” Pretty shocking. But completely honest. Marketers get a bad rap (and often deservingly so) for trying to overspin their message. Be straight with your audience. Tell them what you want from them. In an over-hyped world, they will appreciate the candor, and you might just get better results. (See DIRECTV.)

Give it the family test: Your grandmother knows (the cool one on your mother’s side). Your kid knows (the smart one who actually does her homework). And your spouse knows (they always do). If you can’t share your idea or work with your family, it’s probably over the line. I have yet to find something that shocks my kids. Buckle up; when the younger generations take control, things will get pretty exciting.

I love brands that always choose to push the boundaries in ways true to their soul. These brands make me laugh, think, and feel a little uncomfortable at times–and I respect them for their courage and conviction, even if I don’t always agree with them. 

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[Image: Flickr user Thomas Dongga]


About the author

In 1993, (and with no agency experience) John founded The VIA Agency and developed an effective model in which cross-functional teams solve complex marketing challenges and help clients find new growth. The model combined his engineering background, his unbridled love of ideas and his entrepreneurial appetite and produced results quickly and consistently—earning a spot on Inc.