Balenciaga’s Cautionary Tale in Badvertising

Balenciaga’s recent advertising campaign has caused a stir, with everyone from Kim Kardashian to Fox TV and photographer Gabriele Galimberti feeling the impact. The campaign, which included images such as a child holding a bondage gear-clad teddy bear and a handbag on top of paperwork about child abuse, prompted Balenciaga to issue an apology and file a $25 million lawsuit against the campaign’s producers. 

As experts in this field, with over 16 years of experience in advertising, we question the thoroughness of the approval process for this campaign, especially considering Balenciaga’s reputation and the fact that the company spends around $100 million annually on publicity.

It’s no secret that advertising is meant to grab attention, but research shows that urban consumers are exposed to over 5,000 advertising messages per day, with only a few being remembered. Brands invest heavily in the hope of becoming one of these memorable ads, and one tactic that has been used to achieve this goal is “shockvertising,” or creating ads that intentionally shock and offend the audience. Fashion brands such as Benetton, Calvin Klein, and French Connection have all utilized shockvertising in the past, resulting in free media coverage and benefits for the brand and those associated with it.

A history of successful fashion shockvertising:

In the past, fashion brands have utilized “shockvertising,” or creating ads that intentionally shock and offend the audience, in order to grab attention and generate media coverage. 

Italian clothing brand Benetton was known for its simple, controversial ad campaigns featuring images such as a priest kissing a nun and a black woman nursing a white baby. These ads were placed in popular magazines and on billboards and were successful in attracting attention. The campaign’s creator, Oliviero Toscani, became famous, and Benetton’s global brand popularity increased, although the company later ended its relationship with Toscani. 

In the early 2000s, French Connection launched a campaign featuring the acronym “FCUK,” which resulted in 132 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. 

French Connection responded by placing “Sorry FCUK” signs in store windows, attracting more young consumers and increasing sales. 

In 1980, Calvin Klein released ads with a young Brooke Shields modeling the brand’s jeans and stating, “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.

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EXPK74 1980s USA Calvin Klein Magazine Advert

Who benefits from shockvertising?

People associated with a shockvertising campaign can benefit from the media attention it generates. 

For example, Kim Kardashian, who has worked with Balenciaga in the past, posted about the controversy on her Instagram, allowing her followers to share their thoughts on the matter and potentially building her personal brand. 

Photographer Gabriele Galimberti, who shot some of the most controversial images in the Balenciaga campaign, gave interviews to mainstream media and potentially gained more visibility and new clients.

Balenciaga did not respond to a request for comment on whether the campaign was intentionally controversial in order to generate press coverage, but the brand’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, took personal responsibility for the campaign in a public statement on December 2, saying he would “NEVER have an intention” to use such an “awful subject as child abuse” to provoke thought. 

Shockvertising strategies can allow ads to be seen by millions of potential consumers, even if they are only aired for a limited time before being taken down. 

As the Balenciaga controversy shows, creating paid advertising that is talked about for free can be an effective way to make it work harder.

The aftermath:

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Google searches for “Balenciaga”

Balenciaga’s handling of the controversial Garde-Robe ad campaign has been criticized. The company’s decision to file a lawsuit against the campaign’s producers and the perceived delay in key leaders taking full responsibility for the “grievous errors” and “lack of oversight” and outlining a plan moving forward has frustrated consumers. The lawsuit and resulting media coverage has also led to an increase in searches for “Balenciaga” and backlash against the brand’s partners and endorsers, including adidas and Kim Kardashian. 

Balenciaga’s actions have been seen as a deflection strategy that has prolonged and intensified the situation, known as the Streisand Effect. Consumers have called on the brand to take action and have inundated its partners and endorsers with demands for accountability. 

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The recent controversy involving Balenciaga, as well as consumers’ discontent with adidas’ reluctance to sever ties with Kanye West after multiple instances of hate speech, suggests that companies may face consequences if they are perceived as not taking swift and appropriate action. While it may be tempting for companies and their legal teams to adopt a “wait and see” approach or to wait until all relevant information is collected before responding, this may not be well-received by consumers.

Continued Controversies

Balenciaga’s handling of the recent controversy surrounding its Garde-Robe ad campaign is just one example of a company failing to effectively respond to a crisis. Other examples include the BP oil spill, the Target data breach, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, Fox News’ sexual harassment scandal, United Airlines’ forcibly removing a passenger from an overbooked flight, and Dolce & Gabbana’s alienation of Chinese consumers due to a racist ad campaign. Companies often fail to effectively respond to crises because they are not adequately prepared and have not thought through potential scenarios beforehand.

There is also a tendency to try to ignore problems in the hope they will go away. In order to better handle crises, companies should have a plan in place beforehand and be prepared to make effective decisions quickly. Smaller companies may need to rely on in-house and outside counsel to help prevent, prepare for, and address crises. The role of chief crisis officer may also become more important for larger companies, as well as for in-house and outside counsel to take on a bigger role in crisis communications.

Nader alMaleh

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