Home Anty-Climax 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. 😉