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Marketing products that cause a scandal: a good idea?

What is marketing but getting the consumer’s attention? After all, this is how the customer experience begins. Do you have to use vulgarity or bad taste to achieve your goals? That’s the question I asked myself when I saw a completely failed marketing operation at the Courtauld Gallery (London).

The objects of scandal at the Courtauld Gallery

sunflower van gogh soap savon

One of the derivative objects proposed by the Courtauld Gallery that had to be withdrawn. Copies like this one are still for sale on online auction websites (eBay screenshot of March 3, 2022)

For an exhibition dedicated to Van Gogh, the London museum had the “brilliant” idea of proposing derivative products that somewhat mocked the tormented personality of the Dutch-born painter. Among these products designed with very British humor, we found an eraser in the shape of an ear and a soap for tortured souls.

The marketing detour didn’t please the supporters of people with mental illnesses. The Courtauld Gallery was accused of making a mockery of these patients and was forced to withdraw the controversial products.

By wanting to “create a buzz,” the marketing operation turned against those who had initiated it.

However, this tendency to want to “shock” to attract attention is not new. First of all, other derivative products exist that exploit the same spring. A small tour on Etsy is enough to be convinced. You can find earrings in the shape of an ear, protection to avoid damaging your ears while wearing a mask, …

The visibility of the Courtauld Gallery, on the one hand, and the ambient wokism, on the other hand, will undoubtedly have played a role in the banishment of these objects. In the land of second-degree humor, it is still funny.

Etsy Van Gogh ear products

Products related to Vincent Van Gogh’s ear for sale on Etsy (screenshot of March 3, 2022)

These objects clearly want to create controversy

But what would our English friends say about other objects that are much less in the second degree? During my wanderings in search of retail innovations, I photographed 2 products that are not in the least amusing. Please enjoy them.

Hand Soap The Finger

The design of this soap speaks for itself.

bougie anti connards

The “anti-Connard” candle allows us to keep “those pests who poison your life at a distance.”

These products are proudly displayed in beautiful Parisian windows, and nobody is offended. Double standards, one might say.

These examples show us that it is more and more complicated to “navigate” in the meanders of modern marketing. Sensitivities are heightened, and the brand image is ultra-protected. Therefore, the big brands have become highly cautious, and marketing campaigns are more and more calculated framed to avoid offending anyone. This is often a balancing act, given cultural differences and the globalization of trade.

The freedom to shock has become incompatible with the DNA of mainstream brands. Good manners and etiquette have been imposed on all forms of communication. Even Benetton, a brand that was once accustomed to scandals under Oliviero Toscani, has become -relatively- more relaxed.

Does this mean that only niche brands can now afford to create a buzz without worrying about their image?




Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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