Balenciaga, Sad Dogs & Provocative Marketing
Earlier this month, Balenciaga was rightfully called out for its campaign featuring children holding BDSM teddy bears, and a $3,000 handbag positioned atop Supreme Court papers ruling on child pornography.
That this is even a sentence is absolutely. fucking. astounding.
Since the backlash, there’s been a whole lot of “how could this happen?” ...both externally and internally.
What were meant to be “fake office documents,” Balenciaga claims, “turned out to be real legal papers most likely coming from the filming of a television drama.”
Ah — the classic mix up.
I mean, who would want to take complete responsibility here when there are plenty of vendors and teams to blame. In a statement, Balenciaga has since hired just another team to oversee and approve its creative outputs... as if they were unable to do so themselves. Nice.
Meanwhile, there’s been a $25M lawsuit against a production company... which was then... dropped by Balenciaga... a week later? Charade? Threat? A quiet signal of actual responsibility? We’ll never get the full story.
But it’s one we’ve seen plenty of times.
Controversy and marketing is not new.
One of the biggest losers: Urban Outfitters has been trying provocative stunts all throughout the 10s: There was their blood-stained Kent State Sweatshirt — alluding to the 70s Vietnam War university protest where the National Guard killed four students. Then there was their shirt sold in the “Obama/Black” color option, and then the one which read “Eat Less.” And who could forget their Star of David Shirt or Holocaust Tapestry?
Meanwhile, UO’s cultural kin, American Apparel, was blurring advertising with pornography, featuring porn stars themselves as the models, and in one ad, “sexualized a model who appeared to be a child" — this according to the Advertising Standards Authority which got involved.
Provocation has existed much earlier than this, but the point being: culture has been tested, and the temperature has been taken very, very recently...
The mantra’s always been sex sells, and controversy cuts through. And after all, here we are discussing the controversies...
But we know: talk is not causation of sales.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Balenciaga’s intent was crystal clear. They’re not selling family Kraft Mac & Cheese dinner. They sell edginess. Subversiveness is their product. $625 Croc Heels. A Seven-Layer $9,000 Jacket. $1,850 Tattered Shoes. Mockery. Gall. Disregard. Of course pushing limits and provoking is within brief. We’re naive to ask, “How?” It’s obvious how this campaign gets brainstormed. But that kids were used as the stunt itself is where things get utterly mind-blowing. Intimidation to speak up? Groupthink? Bad faith?
It was (and remains) a conspiracy theorist’s field day. The satanic panic lit aflame by easter eggs: hidden symbols and artifacts within the photos, ultimately sparking #BalenciagaGate. But it was all a part of the plan. They’re not daft. We’re really surprised an offensive anti-fashion fashion house offended? This is not to defend, but to explain. By many standards the campaign worked... just, maybe... too well? It was bombed by its own self-absorbed tasteless attempt at provocation, attention and contempt.
While it appears provocation and commercialism are inherently incompatible... It’s not impossible.
Mass marketing's aim is to effectively segment and resonate — and controversy is just a thrown wrench in that machine, sharp instigation undermining any attempt to win over the masses.
But that’s not to insinuate audiences can't be challenged, nudged nor prompted — in fact, many times, they should be if a brand is seeking engagement.
Take Sarah McLachlan’s infamous ASPCA PSA. Sad puppy dog eyes, and dogs with just one eye. A voice over about animal abuse floating above a heartfelt soundtrack. You can save these animals. You. Call today to support our adorable, sweet, innocent friends. You can prevent this. You can save them.
Provocation meets money. Success.
However, subverting expectations is only one small step removed from disrespecting and tormenting.
I’m not convinced that culturally we’re more open to being provoked today. Cultural norms consistently evolve: what was a norm a decade ago, is taboo today, and what was stigmatized and off-limits then, is now tolerable.
With this, provocation is always a moving target. It’s culturally contextual.
But on the other hand, there will always be something which will offend. We've actually gotten quite good at this. For some, virtue signaling is now a sport.
But perhaps the greatest change in provocative marketing today — which brings us back to Balenciaga — is that everyone is now the audience. Everyone.
Despite the presumption that we're each in our own algorithmic bubbles, served up bespoke content — when something strikes a nerve, our networked lives ensure the signal travels instantaneously. It reaches all. Sometimes: the good. Often: the bad. And most likely of all: the ugly.
Controversy today is immediate.
While something provocative can be deemed acceptable (or at least viewed indifferently) by the originally intended audience, when viewed by an outside, un-intended audience, we get a mess (ex. Balenciaga).
This is not to say Balenciaga’s target enjoyed the ad, but I do think it’s fair to presume that the intended audience is not as outraged as the unintended audience. In fact — the unintended audience’s backlash may have actually helped in brand building — outrage attractive to the intended audience.
The balance between marketing for niche, and inadvertently reaching all... and dealing with those consequences is a complex beast. (This is deserving of its own series of pieces. Anyone?)
We’re inevitably going to get people commenting on the “artistic” strategy of a luxury brand by those who can't even afford the product anyway... Perhaps we can just consider this cultural checks-and-balances?
While something may not be for everyone — and we must remember it should never be for everyone — we also have to reckon with the fact that sometimes everyone becomes our audience.
Maybe there’s an upside here?
Challenging society’s norms has always been art’s work — and there’s clearly an opportunity for controversial marketing... but for as long as provocation has purpose. If it's stunt for stunt-sake, it more often than not won't fly.
In our socially progressive climate, stimulation can work, for as long as that stimulation is backed by prosocial intent and direction: “Where do I place this roused energy?”
If there's no place to direct that burning hot, hot spirit, it will likely fall back upon the brand... negatively.
Put another way: if you’re equipping the mob with pitchforks, at least send them in a direction with a conceptual target.
In the case of ASPCA and those sad dogs — they raised $30M in donations within the first two years of the campaign — their most successful campaign in the organizations’ history, and according to The New York Times, “a landmark in nonprofit fund-raising, where such amounts are virtually unimaginable for a single commercial.”
People were provoked.
But they at least knew where to place that energy.