Capitalism and controversy – why marketers love to offend

In a society characterised by capitalism, consumerism and simply “having it all”, it is impossible to avoid advertisements and maintain immunity from the influence of ever-clever PR techniques. More than ever, marketers have the ability to work out precisely what makes you tick and exactly how to target you, and that is all thanks to technology. But just how far will marketers go get their brand name noticed?

Popular restaurant chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) recently received public criticism upon the unveiling of their controversial new posters, part of the company’s new marketing campaign. The posters, seen largely on the London Underground, feature an image of a meaty burger with the caption “Vegetarians, resistance is futile”. Another variation, alongside an image of a young cow, proclaims “They eat grass so you don’t have to”.

Sure enough, this kind of advertising got the brand the mass coverage that GBK desired. But does the saying “There’s no such thing as bad press” really ring true when social media allows for a participatory culture endorsing not only public discussion, but public retaliation and oppositional action?

The topic was soon trending on Twitter with vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters alike expressing their disgust at the campaign, which was seen as mocking vegetarianism whilst alienating a large proportion of the restaurant’s customer base.

But some people took matters into their own hands through the creation of spoof posters. Examples included “We kill them so you don’t have to” – referring to the cow image – and “You’ll always remember when your customer base realised that eating dead bodies was barbaric” – a spoof of an original poster which stated “You’ll always remember when you gave up being a vegetarian”. It was suggested that the restaurant felt threatened by the increasing popularity of veganism. But by the looks of it, I’m not sure whether this was the right way to go about appealing to vegans.

Certain groups in society are not always targeted in such overt ways by marketers. Last year feminists defaced posters advertising Protein World, which featured an image of a very slim and toned woman in a bikini with the caption “Are you beach body ready?” Although not explicitly referring to a social group, many women took offence, arguing the advertisement implied that if you did not look like the model in the picture, you should not be showing your body on the beach – a form of body-shaming to invoke pressure and ultimately, purchase. Unlike the GBK campaign, Protein World probably failed to see their advertising as controversial or likely to offend, although in recent years audiences have become less passive in their consumption of such media. “If my body is on a beach, then it is ready, thank you very much”, was just one of the comments that defaced one of the posters. We should doubt whether the company has many, if any regrets over the campaign which was talked about so widely.

GBK and Protein World have certainly received the media attention they were looking for, but surely it would be better to be seeen in a positive and liberal light than as a money-hungry corporation? Have marketers really run out of ideas good enough to gain media attention on legitimate grounds, or do they really have to make certain groups in society feel uncomfortable in order to be talked about?

It seems many companies are blissfully unaware of the power of the people, and the ways in which word-of-mouth is still more powerful than the projection of mass media. Companies which promote a healthy way of living, and that embrace all social groups are more likely to gain my money, my promotional word-of-mouth and my Twitter hashtags than those who are clearly solely concerned with their own capitalist agenda than positive PR with their product. Competition between similar companies has led to controversy being the easiest wat to get attention – and this is why it can be argued that capitalism is detrimental to our social relations.

By all means, we should let them aggravate us. We should respond to what we don’t believe is ethically or socially right. We should discuss, we should argue and we should participate. But the best revenge? Maybe we should just stop giving them the one thing they actually want: our money.


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Alice Mortimer

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May 2022
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