Rattling the Cage: Why Do Brands Provoke Us? | Apple Case Study

Apple’s apology for its advertisement has caught the industry’s attention #marketing. Intriguingly, the apologies themselves are garnering more attention than the advertisement. Perhaps that’s the point?

Rattling the Cage

I’ll start with two concepts. The first is “rattling the cage,” and the second is clutter. “Rattling the cage” (i.e., throwing a spanner in the works) refers to throwing a wrench into the machinery, disrupting its function. In Poland, the phrase is used to provoke a caged, enraged tiger that cannot attack us. For instance, Dominika Długosz wrote in “Newsweek Polska” about the Polish Prime Minister: “Donald Tusk is a master at rattling the cage. I write this without any malice, as it is a skill instrumental in politics. (…) Donald Tusk knows exactly what to say to cut through the noise. This isn’t a criticism. It’s an important skill, especially when one is simultaneously the Prime Minister, the party leader, and his press spokesperson.”

In marketing, it serves as an attractor (cf. R. Cialdini, Pre-Suasion, 2016) or a value of occurrence (cf. J. Kotarbiński, The Art of Marketology, 2014). The art of capturing attention sometimes morphs into the art of creating commotion.

Advertising Clutter

The second concept is “clutter.” In advertising, clutter refers to too many ads being presented to the consumer at one place or time, which can lead to reduced effectiveness of each ad. Every day, we encounter 2,000 to 3,000 advertising messages. It is difficult to pinpoint the first person who formulated this concept. Discussions on the subject have become popular in marketing literature and media studies since the 1990s. The idea has gained importance as the number of available advertising channels has increased, and marketing communication has intensified. One effect of clutter is transmedia storytelling, as defined by Prof. H. Jenkins.

The term refers to the excess advertising messages that consumers encounter daily, leading to reduced effectiveness of individual ads. Howard Gossage predicted the problem of ad excess fifty years ago. He suggested that more effective ads mean fewer and greater focus on quality rather than quantity (see Emerald Insight).

Contemporary research and discussions indicate that ads need to stand out from others to effectively capture the audience’s attention. This can be achieved through creative approaches and well-thought-out communication strategies. This implies transmedia branding (see CJ&CO™).

I have been promoting the idea of transmedia branding and storytelling for over ten years.

Controversial Apple Ad

Apple’s latest ad, for which the company apologized, is neither the first nor likely the last to stir controversy. Two main hypotheses arise. The first is a mistake made by marketers and the advertising agency. The second: is a deliberately planned provocation to create media turmoil, drawing attention to the iPad brand and sparking global discussions. Both theories are plausible. However, proving them requires concrete evidence, not speculation. Evidence for the second hypothesis might be found in the creative brief and arrangements between the agency and Apple. Perhaps it reads, “Make an ad that annoys people, a rod poking the tiger in the cage. Let them talk, just don’t get the brand name wrong.”

Controversial Marketing Projects

The history of advertising knows many controversial productions. Like the world of art, we have many provocations here. Several campaigns in Poland have been suspected of deliberate provocations recently. In 2017, Audi Poland sparked controversy by posting a photo of the new Audi A5 against the backdrop of the Warsaw Uprising Monument on its official Facebook profile. The image, part of a series depicting cars in various Warsaw locations, quickly disappeared from the profile after it triggered a wave of criticism. Netizens accused the company of desecration and tactlessness, with some comments pointing to the irony of pairing a German car with a site commemorating victims of German occupation. There were also photo edits and harsh comments referring to Audi’s history as the successor to Auto Union, which manufactured armaments for the Third Reich during World War II.

In 2020, Audi once again found itself at the center of controversy after posting an advertisement on X (formerly known as Twitter) featuring an RS4 model with a little girl holding a banana in front of the car. The ad, with the slogan “Let your heart beat faster – in every respect,” displeased internet users. Critics slammed it for potentially dangerous behavior (child standing in front of a car) and possible inappropriate sexual undertones due to the banana. In response to the criticism, Audi apologized and announced that the photo would no longer be used in marketing communications. Digital agencies handling Audi could show nice, meaty organic reach numbers in both cases.

Another example in Poland was the story of a particular energy drink brand, which I will not name here. The court fined the brand. I described this story in the post, “Advertising Alcohol in a Veil of Absurdity, or Who’s Chasing the Rabbit?” (PL).

Sheds with religious references provoke the most vital controversies.

One of the most controversial advertising campaigns with a religious motif was by Oliviero Toscani for the Italian brand Benetton. The photograph “Priest and Nun” was published in 1992. The photo shows a kissing priest and nun. The ad was part of Benetton’s “United Colors of Benetton” campaign, which aimed to promote diversity and tolerance but sparked controversy. The campaign used solid visual social and political symbols to draw attention to global issues such as AIDS, racism, war, and the right to asylum. Today, the discussion about this campaign on social media would be as heated as it was then.

In April 2024, Catholics’ fury in Italy was ignited by a TV ad depicting nuns eating chips for communion (Catholics’ fury as Italian TV ad depicts nuns eating chips for communion, The Guardian). Amica Chips, the company behind the ad, was accused of using blasphemy to boost sales. The thirty-second ad for Amica Chips took place in a convent and started with a scene where nuns were preparing to receive communion. Their superior realized the tabernacle was empty and filled it with chips. Lorenzo Marini Group, the firm that created the ad, stated that the campaign was aimed at younger audiences and had a “strong British ironic tone” intended to “express the irresistible crunchiness of Amica chips” exaggeratedly and provocatively.

In January 2024, the Madonna restaurant in Warsaw caused immense emotions due to its controversial decor, which combined religious symbols with pop culture, such as images of the Virgin Mary with Rihanna’s face or Jesus as Keanu Reeves. Controversies involved the use of rosaries as decorations on alcohol bottles and placing a confessional for taking photos, which many Catholics considered profanation and mockery. Many Warsaw residents expressed their dissatisfaction, filing complaints with the city hall. The city authorities informed that they had no tools or authority to intervene in the interior decor of the establishment, as it is conducted on private property and does not violate any laws.

In 2013, we saw a Mercedes advertisement featuring Adolf Hitler, depicting him as a child run over by a car and his body arranged in the shape of a swastika. It was a student project from the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany’s film and advertising schools. The project was neither approved nor supported by Mercedes-Benz. It was a student project meant to showcase the creative use of car safety technology. The ad gained publicity but faced significant criticism due to the sensitivity of the subject and the controversial use of a historical figure. Mercedes-Benz officially distanced itself from the ad and emphasized that it was not involved in its production. Nonetheless, the matter did not end in court.

Do Controversies Pay Off?

Do Audi, Mercedes, Apple, and similar global brands suffer reputational consequences? I don’t think so. They are too strong and large for customers to turn away from them because of controversial ads. However, controversial marketing communication certainly cuts through the clutter. Controversies in advertising are often a good way to attract interest from non-profit organizations, small companies, or completely unknown brands. Controversy is a hazardous tool. It’s like the Carolina Reaper pepper. This variety of chili peppers is considered one of the hottest in the world. When used in small amounts, it can significantly enhance the flavor of a dish and vice versa. Thus, a marketer and brand manager may use controversies in marketing communication carefully and cautiously. If customers turn away from the brand, the price will be very high.

Why Did Apple’s Ad Spark Controversy?

The controversial Apple ad was examined by Jon Evans of System1Group. You can download the results and conclusions of his study of this spot here [PDF, 837 KB].

Why is Apple’s Ad Controversial?

First, there is an element of destruction, the destruction of things human civilization loves. The hydraulic press symbolizes digitization that kills humanism. Subconsciously, we do not accept the destruction of musical instruments, which have been with us since the dawn of civilization.

Second, there is anthropomorphization. Anthropomorphization is the process of attributing human characteristics to objects, animals, or concepts. This can include assigning them human emotions, depicting natural phenomena like storms or mountains as characters with human traits, or treating everyday objects like cars or computers as if they had their thoughts and feelings. This element in Apple’s ad is powerful and causes controversy.

In Poland in 2014, there was an advertising campaign called “Sad Bus.” It closely resembles the Apple ad in this respect. The campaign was an initiative by the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs (MSW). It aimed to raise awareness about public transportation safety, particularly school buses. An advertisement was created featuring an anthropomorphized character of a sad, neglected bus mocked by newer models and eventually ruthlessly destroyed. The advertising slogan was: “Have no mercy for a malfunctioning bus that transports your child.” The spot generated significant interest and reach, primarily due to the controversies. The large number of negative comments on YouTube led to their disablement. Polish YouTuber Pantera created an alternative ending for this spot using the same technique. This is, in my opinion, one of the best methods.

Will There Be Alternative Apple Ad Films Created by Other Creators?

It’s very likely. However, each time they will promote the brand of the new iPad. Apple fully exploits the possibilities offered by transmedia branding, i.e., creating controversial messages that build viral and organic reach. In the world of contemporary advertising, this is not a strange phenomenon. The most crucial aspect, however, is what forms of narrative and storytelling methods about the brand will be used.

What Does This Mean?

Conclusions. We cannot avoid controversies in advertising, as they have been an element of every culture for centuries. Advertising, especially controversial, will continue to evolve in a world of increasing clutter. All broadcasters strive to break through with their message, not just in marketing. By deliberately provoking, brands create media turmoil that captures attention.

However, such an approach always carries risks—it may provoke negative reactions and potentially discourage some customers. Especially today, it is essential to understand the boundaries between effective and controversial advertising. The art of marketing communication lies in the ability to tell the brand’s story diversely. The effectiveness of controversial advertising depends on many factors, including culture and the audience’s sensitivity, which brands must skillfully manage to achieve the desired effect.

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