Controversial Marketing Tactics In Pop Culture


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The Big Controversy of Lil Nas X

Controversial marketing is a tale as old as time and has proven consistently to be a major win for brands that dare to use it. We've talked extensively about case studies that have implemented it before and the young hip hop star, Lil Nas X recently proved once again that it continues to succeed. Causing an outrage with the video for his latest single "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" and accompanying sneaker line, the young music artist has caused a commotion on par with the iconic and now-classic video "Like A Prayer" by Madonna.

And while many would argue that the choices made both in the music video and the sneaker line released with it are simply offensive, there is a larger point to be made about the PR you can create with such a risque choice. In this blog, Hollywood Branded examines the controversy of Lil Nas X's latest music video and sneaker line and how it can still prove to be a major win.

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A Lil Background on Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X blew up in the music scene two years ago with the release of his first hit single, "Old Town Road." The song blends traditional country elements with hip hop in a way that was so surprising and refreshing that it was an overnight sensation. The most famous remix of the song includes the classic country artist Billy Ray Cyrus, which catapulted the song to receive multiple nominations in the Country Music world. In fact, this was the beginning of the first stir that Lil Nas X would create as it sparked the debate of whether or not his music was legitimately true enough to the genre to be considered a country song at all.

Shortly after the singer rose to fame, he surprised fans with the news that he was gay. As the biggest fans of his music are children, it once again sparked controversy about whether or not it was appropriate for the singer with such a young audience to use his platform to discuss his personal life as a member of the LGBTQ community. As evidenced in many of his responses on Twitter to the backlash he's received, Lil Nas X is the master of the clap back and handles criticism well.


The Montero Madness 

If you haven't seen Lil Nas X's latest video, we can catch you up to speed on the controversy surrounding it. The song "Montereo (Call Me By Your Name)" is a short pop song less than three minutes long, in which the artist describes his experiences in the gay community. Naturally, the line "Call Be Your Name" is in reference to the famous 2017 film starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet about a gay relationship set in Italy in the 1980s.

The video depicts the young rapper in a CGI fantasy world in which the lead character has a journey that culminates with him poll dancing all the way down to hell. Once there, Lil Nas X performs and dances for Satan (even literally twerking on his lap) until he is able to climb onto the devil's shoulders, breaks his neck, and then crowns himself the new kind of hell. Granted, even though the video is very deliberately not realistic, many critics found the video shocking and offensive.


In response to criticism, Lil Nas X took to Twitter to defend the choices made in the video with the following: "i spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the shit y’all preached would happen to me because i was gay. so i hope u are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves." Clearly, the video serves as a literal response to the way that if you're part of the LGBTQ community, many religious communities have served to make you feel as though you belong in Hell. As Lil Nas X commented, once he leaned into the imagery of that sentiment, many people found it deeply offensive.

Getting Your Controversial Kicks

As you have been now well acquainted with in this blog, Lil Nas X is no stranger to controversy. Not only that, he embraces it! Shortly after releasing the video for "Montero (Call Be Your Name)" Lil Nas X announced he had a limited line of shoes he would be releasing that featured an altered pair of Nikes with a pentagram, the numbers 666 stitched on and Luke 10:18, which in the Bible refers to the line "And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven." And if that wasn't shocking enough, there was a promise in the press release that a drop of human blood would be in each pair of shoes. Guess how many shoes would be made available in this line? You guessed it: 666. Again, this was a very over-the-top way to surround more PR around the release of the single. And it succeeded with flying colors.

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Many critics found the combination of the video described the pairing as sac-religious, satanic, and disgusting. Many comments on the internet went deep into conspiracy theories about Lil Nas X flaunting his involvement in satanic rituals and that he was saying openly what many believe members of Hollywood have been doing for decades but now he's putting it all out in the open. The more you dig into YouTube comments and online forums, the crazier the theories surrounding the release of the video and shoe get. Ultimately it seems pretty clear that none of this is true. It was just a PR stunt to capitalize on the momentum of the single's release. Naturally, the shoes sold out instantly when they dropped.

Due to the outrage surrounding the shoe release, Nike quickly filed a lawsuit issuing that none of the shoes be released as they did not release for their brand to be tied to any of the associations of the satanic imagery in this limited line. This is actually not the first time that another brand purchased and resold Nikes with additional branding added on them and Nike doesn't always take issue with it but since the brand didn't want to be associated with the controversy, the lawsuit was filed and a judge quickly ordered a hold on all shoes be placed and none of them were allowed to be released. This is an understandable choice for Nike of course.

While Nike is no stranger to controversial marketing tactics, they prefer to appeal to their consumers with cause marketing and social justice (like the famous Colin Kaepernick partnership that has now been mentioned in our blogs more times than I can count). Choosing to put a stop to this limited line helped Nike preserve their own image and control the narrative surrounding its own image and branding. This actually became a win for their brand as well - making them part of a trending moment but without it being at the expense of their name.

Weighing Out The Controversy

Lastly, a free browser game titled Twerk Hero was released, allowing players to control a virtual Lil Nas X twerking to the single, "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)". Developed by Roni Games, the game has four levels, each set in a scene from the song's music video. While many found the culmination of all these choices to be over the top, deeply offensive, and inappropriate, it begs the question - was it worth it? From a PR standpoint, the answer is yes. On Spotify, the song currently has over 156 million streams and on YouTube, the video is sitting at over 135 million streams. If there is an outrage surrounding your video, people will seek it out just to see what all the fuss is about. Lil Nas X's previous single "Holiday" was moderately successful with its reception, but upon its release, it made little news beyond the typical mentions in music blogs. 

The choice to lean into controversial tactics surrounding the release has not only kept Lil Nas X's name in the headlines for weeks, but it regained the momentum of "Old Town Road" by truly making his music a memorable moment in pop culture. Ultimately, that's every artist and brand's goal - to stand out and create branding that stirs a reaction in people. It can be successful to play it safe, but bold choices in branding make waves that last long and make you a name that people remember in the sweeping news cycle of immediate trending moments that happen so quickly, it becomes increasingly difficult to make your name last.

Let Hollywood Branded Help You Up Your Pop Culture Game!

Controversial marketing may potentially damage a brand’s image, but as Lil Nas X proved, if you hold a strong stance in what you believe, and it resonates with its consumer base, it can ultimately work to your advantage.

If you're interested in learning more about controversial celebrity endorsement, check out these articles from us:

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