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When PR controversy is for a good cause

You may have heard the story about Paddy Power who upset green campaigners when they doctored pictures of the Amazon rainforest as a part of their World Cup campaign. Social media users were horrified by the image of “C’mon England PP” carved out of the Amazon rainforest, as a show of support for the England football team, and predictably the company were attacked for the audacity of tweeting said images on their Twitter account.

Paddy Power stunt

“Run, forest run!” they wrote, along with “We’re showing our support for Roy’s boys!!” How could they take their show of support so far as to hack up the Amazon for a cheap gimmick?

Well, it turns out the bookmakers tricked us and announced that the photos had been faked as part of a months-long campaign “to raise awareness of deforestation.” Teaming up with Greenpeace, the campaign included the individual computer-generation of almost 1.5 million trees, because an area the size of 122 football pitches is chopped down every 90 minutes in the Amazon.

Doctoring the pictures was Paddy Power’s way of raising awareness of deforestation during a high profile event like the World Cup. In reference to the controversy, they urged people to join the charity’s movement to save wildlife that has been affected by disappearing habitat.

Before the ‘true’ nature of the stunt was revealed though, comments about their actions varied from “the most idiotic PR stunt ever” to outcries at the “disgrace” and “disrespect” of the whole thing. And yet, Paddy Power do this a lot. It’s their most prominent marketing tactic, causing controversy for publicity. And when you consider that this latest stunt, for once, was for a good cause, could the ‘most idiotic PR stunt’ be re-branded as ‘genius’?

Grab attention for the greater good

No, we wouldn’t go that far either, but you have to admit, controversy grabs attention. When a high profile celebrity breaks the law, their status skyrockets. Why? Because people are talking about them. The scandal of driving under the influence or single-handedly upsetting a group of people with an ignorant comment, is considered newsworthy.

Kissing puppies, reading to sick children and pledging support to green charities, while admirable, doesn’t grab the average person’s attention away from their social media accounts. Here in the UK, we know that deforestation of the Amazon rainforest needs to stop, but we live so far away, the issue is brushed to the back of our minds. So how do you remind us that the cause is worth fighting for? By making us care. Doctoring a picture to look like trees had been destroyed for a joke, did the trick. We were furious.

Clever, right? Let’s not pretend this is a new phenomenon though. Scandal has been planned to benefit good causes throughout history.

During the early 20th Century, women’s suffrage was a struggle. The men of the time did not care that women wanted the right to vote, and peaceful protests weren’t having the desired effect. So the Suffragettes broke away and decided to make people pay attention through front page headlines.

Prison hunger strikes and the terrible incident when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby, are just two examples of incidents that grabbed headlines. While not advisable, their featuring in the early media of the 20th Century made Britain pay attention. It was as effective then as it is now. After an interlude between 1914 and 1918 in which everyone, men and women, did their part for the war effort, female householders over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918. It wasn’t everything they asked for, but it was a step in the right direction.

Paddy Power’s campaign was designed to be self-serving while it promoted a good cause, unlike The Suffragettes who worked entirely for women’s rights. Therefore the two groups are very different. What they do share is the ability to get a rise out of people.

Banned ads raise awareness

Sometimes controversy isn’t even intentional. What about advertisements that are banned for supposed violations? It makes the news and curiosity gets the better of people. They go looking for it, the video or poster gets millions of hits, and the intended purpose of the ban (to stop people seeing it) is rendered pointless.

Do you recall the Women’s Aid advert starring Keira Knightley that was banned in 2009? It was to advertise a campaign against domestic violence. In the full advertisement shown below, Keira returns home from shooting a new film and is confronted for supposedly having an affair. Later she is knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly on the floor.

Clearcast, the company which censors adverts on behalf of Ofcom, ruled that scenes showing the actress being thrown to the ground and kicked had to be removed before broadcasting, which, when you consider that the ad intends to raise awareness of violence in the home that cannot be censored when you’re living it, is an odd decision.

Still, Women’s Aid had the last laugh, because Keira’s high profile as a Hollywood actress and the Clearcast ruling, made the papers and drove thousands to YouTube where the ad could be viewed uncut.

“Part of the point of the campaign is to raise awareness about domestic violence and spark debate,” said Chris Hirst managing director of Grey London Advertising Agency, “which the advert has done, even if it doesn’t make it on to TV.”

The Greater good

Whether it is accidental or intentional, the power of scandal can and often does drive online traffic towards a good cause. What are you willing to do to raise awareness for the greater good? There’s an old saying from an English fairytale called Mr Fox:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold,
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

In the world of marketing they claim that all publicity is good, but if the words above teach us anything, it’s that it never hurts to be cautious. You never know what the backlash might be, as Paddy Power found out.