Finding Your Company’s ‘Controversy Sweet Spot’


As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Extend the aphorism, and there is no such thing as bad controversy — especially if that controversy causes conversation. By that thinking, any buzz-generating event, even if wrapped around something less than wholesome, should be a positive for a company or brand looking to get some attention.

But Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger says that’s not the case. Instead, he has found that there is a limit to how much conversation can be generated by a modest amount of controversy. Increase the controversy, however, and the volume of conversation goes down — exactly the opposite of what a good brand manager wants.

“They assume that controversy garners discussion,” he says. “We actually found out it’s more complicated than that.”

Berger and Zoey Chen, a marketing doctoral student at the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology, discuss these findings in the paper, “When, Why, and How Controversy Causes Conversation,” published in the October edition of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Berger and Chen set up a series of experiments to judge the relationship between controversy and conversation. First, they collected about 200 articles posted on, an online news resource, and coded how controversial each was using two independent raters. They then cataloged the number of comments each article received in its first 15 days online.

The initial experiment showed a correlation between controversial topics and online comments up to a moderate level of controversy — a 4.6 on a seven-point scale, to be exact. Articles with higher levels of controversy attracted fewer comments, on average, than those in the mid-range.

Berger’s theory was that discomfort should play less of a dampening role on a controversial discussion if “social acceptance concerns” are reduced by talking with a friend or loved one.

Work then moved to the lab, where experiments were set up to judge participants on the level of discomfort they reported after discussing controversial topics. The results were similar to the analysis of the online comment levels.

Relationships Matter

The next step was to examine the role of anonymity in discussing controversial topics. Since such topics can be uncomfortable to talk about, Berger and Chen write, they wanted to examine if discomfort would be decreased when the conversation was done anonymously.

Participants in an online study were randomly assigned a controversy level (low vs. moderate vs. high) and asked to list one broad topic and three subtopics that would vary in their levels of controversy. They were then told that they would be engaging in an online chat on the topic; some were told that their screen names were untraceable and that no personal information would be disclosed. Others were told that their real name would be visible.

“When people do not have to reveal their identity, moderate controversy increases conversation because it increases interest without increasing discomfort,” Berger and Chen write of the results. “When people have to reveal [their] identity, however, controversy fails to increase, and actually decreases, conversation because it makes people feel uncomfortable.”

Next was a look at the closeness of a relationship in the dynamic between controversy and comfort. Berger’s theory was that discomfort should play less of a dampening role on a controversial discussion if “social acceptance concerns” are reduced by talking with a friend or loved one. Indeed, the researchers found that controversy increased the likelihood of discussion among friends.

“The effect of controversy … is driven primarily by interest, with discomfort yielding little effect,” Berger and Chen write. “Consequently, moderate and high levels of controversy increase the likelihood of conversation.”

“… Companies are trying to figure out how to generate word of mouth because it is 10 times more effective than traditional advertising.” –Jonah Berger

Since strangers don’t have a sense of an individual’s values and tastes, Berger says controversial topics are more likely to be unsafe ground for discussion. “At the core, the key [question] is … how will talking about an issue affect how people see me?”

But if the strangers aren’t entering each other’s social or professional circle — if, indeed, they are unlikely ever to meet again, or at all in the case of an online comment board — there could be a safety effect similar to what was observed with conversations between friends, Berger notes.

“If I don’t know you very well, I may be worried … about bringing up uncomfortable things,” he says. “Because you don’t know them that well, there is a greater chance of a negative impact from controversy. But if I never see you again, it doesn’t matter as much in that situation.”

The Capacity for Controversy

The experiments showed all controversy is not created equal, and different levels of controversy have different effects on personal discomfort, which, in turn, dampens the conversation, Berger notes.

So should companies avoid even the hint of controversy altogether, since it can have such a negative effect? No, Berger says, because word of mouth has proven to be such a valuable branding tool.

“As I talk about in my book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, companies are trying to figure out how to generate word of mouth because it is 10 times more effective than traditional advertising,” he points out. “Word of mouth increases sales, speeds product adoption, and has a host of other benefits. It’s more efficient and more effective.”

“Advertising companies love to do controversial things once in a while, especially when they’re sexy and fun. But when is it effective and not effective?” –Jonah Berger

For every brand, the right level of controversy will fall at a different place. Kmart, for example, got push-back over its online-only “Ship My Pants” campaign that played off the tagline’s close pronunciation to an off-color phrase. But MTV soaked in every bit of controversy during this year’s Video Music Awards show, when pop star Miley Cyrus performed a risque dance number and used a foam finger to get acquainted with fellow pop star Robin Thicke’s nether regions.

The Kmart controversy would have been a blip on MTV’s radar, Berger says, but Miley Cyrus gyrating on the floor of a Kmart would have set that chain’s radar screen on fire.

“Advertising companies love to do controversial things once in a while, especially when they’re sexy and fun,” Berger notes. “But when is it effective and not effective? To get it, you have to understand why people share.

“The middle end of that scale is the sweet spot,” he continues. “Before you decide if you should get more controversial [in your advertising], you really want to go about getting some sense of where you are on that vibe.”

Citing Knowledge@Wharton


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One Comment So Far

Randall Buchler

What the article failed to reveal though is what a trashy site Topix is. Topix has chosen time and time again to allow a free for all on their website and that site is in decline. They stay in constant hot water and actually their page views and comments have declined over the last few years despite adding a phone ap and adding a political website. Because of the lack of user registration (unfathomable for any reputable company) and their lack of moderation, they managed to run off those that may have once used that site to talk about community issues and news. What is now left is nothing but a group of cowards who libel and trash other people while being too spineless to post their name (doesn’t get anymore cowardly than that). Topix is an example of a website that went too far and is now beginning to lose its audience. There has to be a balance and Topix went the National Inquirer route. It made them a lot of money for a while, but that is in decline and they have a terrible reputation among Attorney Generals, the media, etc. Hate for profit is never the way to go.