The most offensive marketing campaign ever? Did it work?

The most offensive marketing campaign ever? Did it work?


A little over a week ago, we launched a promotion that polarised subscribers to the newsletter of our premium memberships site, the Not-So-Freaky University.

We ran a competition titled “GO FUCKING BOLD IN 2015“, and dispatched an email to about 5,000 people with this as the subject.

We received reply emails from enthusiasts, which described the campaign as ‘exhilarating’ and ‘exceedingly clever’. But, as you can imagine, the email also triggered some furious complaints from some seriously unhappy people.

In fact, I don’t think that we’ve ever received so many emotionally charged responses to any other campaign that we’ve ever run… in the entire 11 year history of our business.

We also received an unprecedented number of emails from interested people asking for the ‘Outcomes’. (Did it work? Can you send me the data? I’d love to see the metrics.)

So, that’s what I’ll be doing today, sharing my full analysis, warts and all.

Firstly, I want to talk about this word, the ‘F’ word.

I love language.

In particular, I love the way that words can inspire. (I’ve built a career doing just that, using words to inspire and prompt people to take action.)

What I don’t like is when words are used to fuel hate.

Many years ago, we quoted a business owner, verbatim, in Anthill, when it existed as a print-based business magazine (when publishing decisions had greater permanence).

He used the word ‘fuck’ prolifically and we made the editorial decision to publish his quotes without resorting to ‘f*ck’ or replace it with the words ‘EXPLETIVE REMOVED’.

We made that decision on the basis that removing the word seemed condescending.

It actually felt rude to censor the word, an insult to the maturity of our readers. (And leaving the quotes unedited allowed us to produce a more accurate portrayal of the subject, which is what good journalism is all about.)

That was nine years ago, in 2006.

The decision to use the word ‘fuck’ in this competition, in January 2015, was based on a different set of rationales but were, nevertheless, heavily influenced by the discussion we had way back then.

When my former editor, Paul Ryan, and I talked about this word and other ‘hate’ words, we reached the conclusion that the only way to rob them of their power was to use them in positive contexts.

Can you see where I’m heading?

“But what about the kiddies!!!”

This campaign generated at least three email replies from outraged parents making the point that their kids can access their emails.

I’m a parent. I understand some of the complexities of parenting first hand.

So, I’m just going to put this out there.

If your kids can read, they know this word. They know that it’s loaded, like a gun, and can be used for good or ill. (WTF! Yeah. True.)

You see, call me strange, but I don’t think it’s the roll of parents to shelter their kids from language (which is impossible). It’s about showing them how to use it in positive ways.

So, just for a moment, I want you to imagine this…

Let’s pretend that you are a parent of a child, teenager or even an adult (which won’t be hard, if you are, indeed, lucky enough to have kids, even the grown-up kind).

One day, your child comes home from school (or a friend’s house or uni or work, whatever), embraces you like you are the only two people in the world, and says…

“Mum, I fucking love you. I love you soooooo fucking much.”


“Dad, I think that you’re fucking brilliant. Dad, keep being soooooo fucking brilliant.”

How would that make you feel? How would you react? Would you be disappointed or angry?

I’m guessing that this soft and generous moment would be the highlight of your day.

Was this competition a positive initiative? Of course!

LINKEDIN GRABIt was created to help business operators embrace their unique qualities, and stop following the herd.

Of course, it also has a pretty clear commercial purpose too, because we are a business.

The competition provides readers, via email and social media, with the opportunity to win some training products. (Game-changers. Everything we do is designed to make people and organisations stronger.)

The competition app was also designed to help entrants share the campaign with friends via email and social media, and every successful referral earns the entrant three extra entries. (Yes, you earn three entries!)

This prompted many, many, many social responses, like the tweets to the right.

From our perspective, the commercial goal was to collect email addresses, and fuel digital word-of-mouth, via social media and email.

To check out the competition, click here.

Why did we ‘resort’ to this word?

This question was common among the critical responses.

The word ‘resort’ implies that we had no better options. (‘Unnecessary’ was also a popular word among the negative replies.)

But, let me tell you, this is a campaign about being bold. It is about challenging conventions. It is about moving beyond beige marketing.

It is not about being slightly bold. Partially bold. Or even very bold.

As I said earlier, I love language.

We didn’t ‘resort’ to using an ‘unnecessary’ word.

In my erudite, language-loving and not-so-humble opinion, we used exactly the right word for the job. (And if you can think of a better word for the name of this campaign, let me know.)

So, what were the ‘Outcomes’? Did it work?

The first hint we received that this campaign was ‘not to everyone’s taste’ was hardly subtle.

It came in the form of an official email from our email provider, InfusionSoft, which informed us that the email had been ‘throttled’ half-way through the send.

The email had triggered an unusually high number of Opt-outs and Spam complaints, and this had prompted InfusionSoft to stop the mail-out. (It’s a good feature.)

We don’t send emails to anyone who hasn’t Opted-in. So, in our world, we rely on Spam complaints as a barometer of sentiment.

We’d never had an email ‘throttled’ before. The initiative had triggered 65 people to Opt-out and 10 people to click the Spam button on their email dashboard, out of 2,561.

That’s more than we get in a month from databases five times the size.

But still… in the big picture…

The email prompted 1,057 people out of 2,561 to open it (a 41% open-rate, which is extremely high for a large list, even if 65 of those opened it with the intent to Opt-out.)

Furthermore, the competition has, so far, solicited 420 entries from 222 people, adding around 140 new leads to our email database, plus more social shares that I can count.

(Seriously, I can’t figure out how to count them.)

That’s a sum gain of 75 leads and the campaign is still running off its own steam, thanks to the power of shares (of course, this post will help it too).

One final word about the ‘F’ word…

One of the complaints — by far the most thoughtful and objective and, therefore, one of my favourites — came from someone called Amaresh.

He questioned whether it was such a good idea to run a campaign that was not inclusive (i.e. a campaign that was likely to exclude some people).

My answer is simple.

Great marketing creates tribes. And tribes depend on unity, which is built from a foundation of shared values and, almost as importantly, the exclusion of ‘other’ tribes.

If you try to please everyone, you’ll please no-one… because you will have alienated the people who matter by making them feel less important, subscribing to the status quo and becoming invisible in the process, thereby ensuring your obsolescence. Just saying.

Over time, I have found that our most effective campaigns have also had the most detractors (usually quiet ones, taking the form of ‘opt-outs’, rather than emails voicing outrage).

And, not-so-coincidentally, this leads me to one of the main messages of the competition, it’s raison d’être.

Being bold is about embracing what makes a business or a person different. And being different can be frightening, simply because anything you do that’s different will attract attention, and that often includes the attention of critics.

We have always been unapologetically experimental. And sometimes that can hurt.

I’d love to say that negative feedback doesn’t faze me (when it actually puts me on edge for days). And I wish everyone would like me. I sometimes wish everyone would agree with me too.

But I know that’s never going to happen.

But here’s something I do know. When I do try something new and possibly radical, I do it with the best intentions.

And if you don’t agree with that, if you are not here to learn and grow and build your business in ways that support other people, if you are not willing to change and evolve and accept different opinions even when it stings, if you don’t believe that words are magic and infinitely malleable and can be used in positive and even hypnotic ways…


Here’s what you can do.

You can go get… wait for it… lost. 😉

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  • RhondalynnKorolak

    Isn’t it always interesting to see what people will latch onto and rave about?  In my experience, it’s usually unsuccessful people who have the most time to complain about stuff like this.  Successful people can usually either see the humor or at least be way too busy to care/respond!  Cheers James.  I say Go forth and be bold!

  • ScienceInPublic

    Offensive perhaps, arrogant and self-serving certainly. I’ve quite like James’ work. But this just reminds me what I don’t like about marketing. 

    Why casually offend people in order to just to sell a few training courses or in in the case of FCUK to sell clothing. This exercise cheapens marketing and cheapens Anthill’s brand.

  • ScienceInPublic

    And in the clumsiest part of the exercise James’ invites me to like it or unsubscribe. So where’s that unsubscribe button. Ah here it is. Goodb……

  • anthillmagazine

    Haha. Clever opt out Niall. 🙂

    But… a couple thoughts.

    Self-Serving. All marketing is self-serving. I hope that we can agree on that, even if you don’t like it.

    Arrogant. The competition itself was created as a way to share what I think is a better way of thinking. Which I suppose is arrogant. But all marketing must also come from a certain arrogance. I hope that we can agree on that too.

    Clumsy. Inviting people to unsubscribe is, in my opinion, also smart marketing (not clumsy at all). The opposite is to create a walled-garden in desperate fear that everyone will leave. And that’s a terrible mindset. In life and career and marketing… everything.

    I once heard of an entrepreneur called Richard Branson. He is quite famous, I’m told.

    He created a brand called… this will shock you… Virgin. 
    Yes, indeed. That upset a lot of people. (As did French Connection when it rebranded in 1991… twenty four years ago!!!)

    I’m being glib. And I do sometimes enjoy the sparring.

    But I’m also sad. I’ve seen you name popup from time to time and I know that you love language.

    As a fellow logophile, I wouldn’t have expected your outrage.

    So, I am disappointed by news of your departure.

    Perhaps one day we can meet in the real world, and thrash this out.
    Beers on me. 🙂


  • ADamnMartian

    Fucking great stuff here, Anthill Team. 

    Offensive? Fuck no! Time and time again we are reminded about how in-offensive the word is and yet,  boy does it grab ones attention!

    Maybe ScienceInPublic should lighten the fuck up? Are you a subscriber to news services, paid spotify or do you merely opt for the free option? If so, then you can thank marketing (and advertising) for their budgets that have paid for your free content. 

    If not, then fuck off.

    Oh, and for those who don’t mind this amazingly diverse word, I implore you, have a listen to this, it will make your day!

    In closing, I say to the haters, fuck the fucking fuckers!

  • ScienceInPublic

    If all this ‘cleverness’ was in the name of something worthy I might just see the benefit. The Santa Claus viral video about climate change for example. But you’re just being crude to sell product.

    I’d like to be able to say, “I know Richard Branson sir, and you’re no Richard Branson.” But I don’t. 

    From a more business/practical point of view you’ve taken some passive supporters of AntHill and your work and turned them in to active critics. And because you’ve encouraged us to unsubscribe you won’t get the chance to reconvert us. 

    So your campaign would need to have attracted a lot of qualified leads to justify disenfranchising some of your traditional support. 


  • anthillmagazine

    Niall. Here’s the thing… it is worthy. It’s so very, very worthy.

    I started Anthill eleven years ago, when I wasn’t allowed to use the word ‘entrepreneur’. That was a dirty word!!!

    And that’s partly because Australians stamp on anyone who attempts to be bold. (Tall poppy etc)

    The fact that you criticize me for being arrogant is exactly the attitude that I am trying to overcome.

    And it’s why I continue to put myself in the firing line. I am being bold. I am being arrogant.

    And I watch the data.

    The the vast majority of people who opted out belong to a generation told not to ‘skite’. (As my grandad would say.)

    Too many people wear disguises. They don’t embrace their true personalities. They don’t stand up for what they believe in.

    And it’s because too many people smash them down if they try to be bold.