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The most successful and controversial marketing campaigns of the 2000s

The campaign unfolded with a viral image of a breakfast: Weetabix covered in Heinz Baked Beans. How did you react?

Brands are spening big at this years Super Bowl, America's biggest sporting event. — © AFP
Brands are spening big at this years Super Bowl, America's biggest sporting event. — © AFP

The world of marketing has put forwards countless unforgettable campaigns over the past decade spanning a range of industries, from fast food to male grooming and women’s health.

Often the campaigns that stand-out are those that enter into more controversial areas. For example, recently, women’s health brand Elvie sparked a wide online response with their March 2022 billboard campaign. The advert depicted a woman squatting and lifting weights complete with liquid to portray urination and raise awareness of women’s incontinence.

In terms of which ‘controversial’ marketing campaigns broke through the noise and caught the public’s attention the most within the 2000s and how many garnered business success as a result, the branding firm Solopress has analysed the top five most controversial marketing campaigns according to social media to reveal which campaigns leveraged shock value to their advantage. The output has been shared with Digital Journal.

The outcomes are:

Always #LikeAGirl

  • 70 million views on YouTube
  • 20.5 million views on TikTok
  • 10,62 likes on Twitter
  • 814 retweets on Twitter

This 2015 campaign involved feminine hygiene brand Always. The campaign #LikeAGirl managed to successfully subvert gender stereotypes and redefine what it means to do something ‘like a girl’. Always’ short video advert depicted a casting call with young women, men, boys and girls being asked to pretend to run, fight and throw like a girl.

Whist women, men and boys chose to act out stereotypes and mock the way in which women would do these things, pre-pubescent girls provided a powerful response in that they pretended to complete these actions with pride and confidence.

The insight resonated with Always’ viewership, with 94 percent agreeing that the campaign has encouraged girls to be more confident and 70 percent of women and 60 percent of men claiming that the video changed their perception of the phrase ‘like a girl’.

Gillette #TheBestMenCanBe

  • 4 million views on YouTube (via Guardian News)
  • 203k retweets on Twitter
  • 76.3k quoted tweets on Twitter
  • 513.3k likes on Twitter
  • 2.1k likes on Facebook

The video-based social media campaign was created in the wake of #MeToo and aimed to challenge traditional male stereotypes and encourage positive behaviour. It disregarded the brand’s shaving products and instead addressed themes of toxic masculinity, misogyny and sexual harassment.

Gillette’s video showed various situations involving boys and men, from men making derogatory comments toward women to young boys fighting each other, intending to encourage others to make better choices.

Elvie Leaks Happen

  • 3 million views on TikTok
  • 1.9k views on YouTube

Following the brand’s TikTok video of a woman squatting with weights and accidentally peeing being flagged by the platform as ‘graphic’, women’s health brand Elvie launched a 20ft ‘peeing’ billboard to confront the taboo of urinary incontinence and clap back at social media censorship around the widespread issue.

Featuring the Elvie Trainer product, the #LeaksHappen campaign showed a 28-year old mum of two, Megan Burns experiencing a leak whilst working out, represented by real water coming from the London-based billboard.

The brand aimed to empower and enable women to ‘achieve everything their bodies are capable of’.

Weetabix, Beanz on Bix

  • 36.3k retweets on Twitter
  • 68.8k quoted tweets on Twitter
  • 130k likes on Twitter
  • 1,839 likes on Instagram

The campaign unfolded with a viral image of a breakfast: Weetabix covered in Heinz Baked Beans. The timeliness of the campaign was another factor that contributed to its success. This came out six weeks into a U.K. national lockdown where audiences were looking for humour and comfort, emphasising the importance of appropriate timing when it comes to controversial campaigns. The campaign was also cross-promoted by other brands, keen to tap into the success.


  • Reached a global audience of 797 million
  • 814 likes on Twitter
  • 428 retweets on Twitter
  • 114 quoted tweets on Twitter
  • 700 press articles and TV discussions

The ad shows an empty chicken bucket with FCK replacing the KFC branding on the front. The advert included an apology for the fact that hundreds of stores had to close throughout the UK as a result of issues with their new chicken supplier DHL.

For this, KFC chose to pursue print advertising as they believed that this utilises higher trust metrics than social media. The advert resulted in 700 press articles and TV discussions, reaching a combined audience of 797 million globally.

In a companion article, the mechanics of controversial adverts are looked at further.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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