Recently there’s been a number of ‘shocking’ ads being run by large brands such as Pepsi and Nivea.

Magically the millennials get pissed off, everyone talks about it and boom, publicity.

It’s easy, it works and unfortunately the vast majority don’t have a clue that they’re doing exactly what the brands want them to be doing by talking about it, pissed off or not.

What I’m interested in as a marketer, business owner, and human being is do the pros outweigh the cons, what are the moral implications and is this trend going to continue?

What Is Trashvertising?

Trashvertising is a set of practices that have come about due to the growing popularity and effecitveness of shock value in marketing and advertising.

The Rise of Trashvertising:

Manipulating the public and the media isn’t hard, it never has been and due to the way we’re wired it never will be.

You can go back to the late 1800s for a prime example of the media manipulating the general public, as well as government.

During this period Yellow Journalism was at its peak,  due to both intense competition and a monkey-see-monkey-do scenario that is common in business throughout history.

Many historians agree that the publications of the day, namely Pulitzer and Hearst were responsible for the Spanish-American war of 1898 that lasted for 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days.

It was and is a damning testament to the power of the media over both public opinion and political policies. Even though this is largely forgotten about, it’s more important than ever to remember this with how the world is today.​

Yellow Journalism fizzled out over time, making a resurgence since the advent of the world wide web. In the last decade, we’ve seen it come full-circle. Today the most prevalent part of Yellow Journalism rules clicks online, and yes that’s sensationalism a.k.a ‘click bait’.

Creating a sensational headline or article is stupidly simple; you focus on the scandal, the conflict, the triviality, the absurdity. You polarize, titillate and dogmatize.

Media companies will tell you if it doesn’t spread it’s dead, in fact Upworthy have shared entire presentations teaching you how to make sure content spreads…​

All the while they’ll tell you they’re a ‘Mission-Driven Media Company’ which is a load of drivel in itself, but an obvious glittering generality that’s used usually by an organization that’s trying to sell you a narrative that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Of course, none of this is uncommon in an information economy that’s ruled by yellow journalism.

Media generally rules the opinions of the masses and if the medium is the message, it’s undeniable that the media is the medium. Regardless of whether that’s Radio, TV or the Internet.

Because of the rise of yellow journalism, brands were given very few choices, if you wanted to stand out you needed to make noise to cut through the jungle of information. You needed to be controversial or you’d be forgotten. At least that’s what most Marketing, PR and Advertising Agencies will tell you. In their roundabout kind of way of doing that.

This created a bubble in which media manipulators like Ryan Holiday could come in, create some noise and make sure it hit the right publications that eventually trade their way up the information chain to the biggest publications online.

The benefits of this to businesses and brands can be read about in his amazing book aptly named ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’.

Trashvertising Today:

Short of writing an entire book about this subject, it’s safe to say that we’ve discussed a few of the most important elements of the history of yellow journalism and why it’s used in the media, and hopefully you can see that in a sick twist of fate it also rules media now in the same way that it did in the 1800s and early 1900s.

It allowed pioneers like Ryan to come in and control the flow of information that they wanted for profit or for political gain. Basically whatever the clients of people like Ryan want!

Now the media is a platform that brands use as a marketing and advertising channel.

As time went on agencies of all kinds have seen the benefits of trashvertising, and they have the data to prove it. So when a brand like Pepsi comes to you looking for a television ad, you’re going to tell them they’ll get the most reach by creating something that will polarize the viewers and cause outrage.

Here’s the Pepsi ad in case you haven’t seen it… It’s not actually that bad unless you’re paying attention, but with the right manufactured comments, the right people paid a few dollars to tell you how outraged they are on their blogs and all shit hits the fan!

It’s good for Pepsi, it’s good for Kendall and it’s definitely not some advertising blunder like they would have you think.

A normal television ad, it’d get you in front of people sure, but this kind of trashvertising extends so much further… To top it off, they even cancelled the ad which would of cost millions to run, and in the process of saving all this money they actually managed to get talked about by just about everyone.

Stories like this are totally irresistible to the media, which is of course what they knew was the case. So Pepsi have managed to get their advert talked about even on news sites like the BBC, The New York Times, Huffington Post and so many others.

When reporting on an advertisement becomes news and peoples feelings about that becomes news, you know we’ve gone backwards.

Then there’s the Nivea advertisement…

The official Nivea page on Facebook is putting out ‘pro skin whitening’ adverts with the slogan ‘white is purity’ Source: Facebook

As you can tell, no advertising agency would actually be that stupid to put this out without meaning to.

But again, this ‘ad’ which is really just an easily made image that may have never even made it to a magazine or billboard for all we know, has attracted huge amounts of controversy and attracted attention from the biggest media sites in the world.

In so many ways it gives back crazy amounts of value for Nivea, meaning the pros undeniably outweigh the cons to them, and this is the same story for every brand that’s using trashvertising for unbelievable growth.

If you’re an inbound marketer like myself, you’ll probably be interested to know how Nivea and brands like them benefit from link acquisition with trashvertising.

Well here’s a screenshot I took directly from Ahrefs which shows a whopping 17,000 new backlinks have been acquired in the last month for alone.

I don’t even think Ahrefs is reporting this properly due to only adding 26 RD’s even if you expect most media companies have linked to Nivea before that’s a stupidly low figure for the amount of new backlinks.

​If they were a different kind of brand that’d be enough to acquire tens if not hundreds of thousands dollars worth of new traffic to their site.

These two examples, are certainly not the first and nor will they be the last examples of trashvertising that you’ll see.​

Is it all good publicity though?

If you’re talking about publicity in the sense that people will talk about you – it’s absolutely good publicity.

If you’re wondering whether everyone will like it though? Hell no, in fact trashvertising is relying on you not liking it.

Making your brand appear racist though, even if you’re trying to brush it off as a mistake is not the smartest thing in the world.

You’ll create an army of what my friend calls ‘brand terrorists’, people that in the past would probably be that one angry nutter outside a businesses headquarters with a billboard, or the dude that threw a brick through some businesses window every time it got repaired because they pissed him off with poor customer service once, until he eventually got caught and arrested.

Of course with the web, you’re talking about something entirely different.​ Nivea for example with their racist ad will undeniably lose a lot of established customers, they’ll even have pissed off some people so much that they go out of their way to slate them online at any chance they get. (Unfortunately providing Nivea with yet more publicity).

Brand terrorists in the internet age can’t really be quantified yet as to how much damage they can do, or how far their own message can spread. It’s a gamble that trashvertisers are willing to take though, because ultimately they gain, at least immediately, far more than they lose from doing it.​

The one thing that I’m not so sure about with trashvertising is that it’ll necessarily get more customers, I don’t see who is going to see the stories about Nivea or see the ad and want to buy their products other than white supremacists.

For the most part though, the majority of people don’t care and will keep buying Nivea anyway. In much the same way that the majority of Americans don’t bother to even vote, public / consumer apathy is the center of a malaise that has fallen over many intellectual thinkers and speakers of our time.

Whether it’s good or bad, with advertising it’s not exactly quantifiable, which is why I’m more interested in the marketing benefits of trashvertising from a professional standpoint, despite personally feeling that morally devoid brands shouldn’t be rewarded for this kind of play.​

Morally and ethically wrong or not it’s clear that brands are becoming more brazen with how far they’re willing to go to get more publicity.


Trashvertising as morally dubious as it is, is growing in popularity with brands because it works. It’s clearly not going anywhere as it’s built in to the system to flourish due to yellow journalism and the way the blogosphere functions online.

Whether it’s a good or a bad thing in five years time for a brand is neither here nor there to them as even if it does cause a 20% sales drop by that time they’ll likely attribute it to something else.

Lastly, trashvertising does reward those who practice it in the here and now, and that sounds a lot like good publicity to just about any executives who sign off on these ideas that are pitched to them.

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