“Ummm…is that legal?”

We’ve heard that question quite a few times when we’ve pitched ideas to clients.  

The answer has always been yes, but that doesn’t mean the ideas have always been without risk. As with most things in life and business, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. It’s all about finding the right balance — or as we say, getting on the line.

Many of the campaigns we’ve done for clients and even for ourselves have been based on a marketing theory we developed a few years ago called “On the Line Marketing.” This post will explain what it is, how to do it, examples of companies doing it successfully, and (of course) companies who failed. But first…

What is On the Line Marketing?

Here’s what it looks like:

Most brands are far to the right — they are boring, or as millennials say, boring AF. (Urban dictionary link in case you are unsure what that means)

Their marketing campaigns put you to sleep. They don’t present anything new, they don’t challenge your thinking, they don’t spark conversation, they don’t take a stance, and they don’t influence emotions or decisions.

Most importantly, they don’t capture a buyer’s attention — and today, buyers have more vying for their attention than ever before.

The world is so interconnected and it’s never been easier to start a business. But competition is also fiercer than ever before, and the number of channels that brands need to communicate with has increased exponentially.

The Fiercest Competitor of All: Pickles the Pig

You are competing for attention. Instead of just being up against a few other companies, you are competing with this:

Just look at that little guy!

And you’re not just competing with pigs. You’ve got dogs, cats, epic fail videos, and everything else the internet has to offer. That’s your true competitor.

Companies are waking up to the idea that capturing attention is critical and they have to do something unique to stand out. Unfortunately, most attempts often come across as a lame attempt to create something impactful and interesting.  

Meanwhile, other companies take things a little too far. When you see a marketing campaign that faces major backlash, it’s often because the company failed to really think through all the different ways the campaign could go wrong and ended up with a PR nightmare.  

Some people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but I say you’re an idiot if you think that’s actually true. There is absolutely and undeniably such a thing as bad publicity.

Here are some brands who tried to avoid being boring but failed.

On the Line Marketing #Fails

Here, Have My Social Security Number

A few years ago, identity protection company LifeLock attempted to not be boring and came up with a very clever campaign that featured CEO Todd Davis’s social security number on billboards and online media.

It was brilliant because it directly related to the service they provided — their promise was that even if someone had your social security number, you were safe. The campaign created a bunch of buzz and media attention. But there was one minor problem.

Todd’s identity was stolen multiple times.

So while they get an A for creativity and execution, they get an F for having a product that actually works, rendering this campaign a failure.

Key takeaway: If you are going to pull off a bold product-focused stunt, make sure you don’t have a shitty product.

Sherpa Death on Mount Everest



In May 2018, an ICO had their creative minds in the right place and presumably good intentions when they executed a stunt where they hid a ledger wallet with 500,000 of their coins at the top of Mount Everest.

This was a great attempt at creating buzz. But tragically, one of the Sherpa guides ended up dying during the climb. The death wasn’t caused by the stunt, but the association completely extinguished any success the campaign might have had.

Key takeaway: Make sure people don’t die during your stunts. But seriously, think about any potential impact your stunt could have, whether human or environmental.

Pepsi Fails to Join the Conversation 

In April 2017, with racial tensions high, Pepsi decided they wanted to be part of the conversation.

Their idea: feature Kendall Jenner at a modeling shoot throwing off her wig, walking outside to join a group of protestors (fist bumping them along the way), and crossing the lines to offer a can of Pepsi to the police. Then all of a sudden, the problem is solved and everyone lives happily ever after.

Considering the size of Pepsi and the near unlimited capital they have, it seems crazy that no one on their team managed to stop for a few moments and ask, “Is this actually a good idea?”

Clearly, they didn’t. And I really wonder how many people in the organization saw this campaign and thought to themselves, “Yup, that looks good,” and signed off on it.

Instead of joining the conversation they hoped to join, the only conversation Pepsi was part of was about how idiotic and tone-deaf they were.

Key takeaway: If you are going to take part in a conversation, make sure it’s authentic.

Cartoon Networks Boston Bomb Scare 

While there are few rules when it comes to OTL marketing, there is one that is very important: make sure that what you are doing can never be described as sharing “some characteristics with improvised explosive devices.” (This is what the police actually said.)

Cartoon Network ad executives didn’t consider that rule when they prepared a campaign for

Aqua Teen Hunger Force in 2007. As part of the promotion, they placed devices around the greater Boston area that looked like this:

Almost immediately, people called in to report the suspicious looking devices, the bomb squad was called in, and what was described as an “army of emergency vehicles” surrounded the scene.

As the facts came out, Cartoon Network was blasted for their stunt, they were forced to pay over $2,000,000 in fines, and Jim Samples, who was the Executive Vice President of Cartoon Network, was forced to step down.

Key takeaway: Ummmmm…make sure you aren’t using anything that looks like a bomb.

Examples of Successful OTL Marketing

Amazon’s Dark Subway Ads 

Amazon was clearly pushing to get as close to the line as possible with their campaign to promote their new TV show “The Man in the High Castle,” which details a dark alternate reality where the Axis powers won WWII and the eastern U.S. is occupied by the Germans and the west is occupied by Japan.

The campaign featured NYC subway cars covered in Nazi-inspired and imperialist Japan banners.

It’s pretty obvious that no one at Amazon or their marketing team thought this idea would go down without offending some people and causing a stir. They made a calculated risk/reward decision and it paid off.

The campaign received a lot of media coverage and Mayor DeBlasio even called for the campaign to be removed. Amazon and the show then got even more coverage when they pulled the campaign. (Side note: this is actually how I first heard about the show. Just started season 3. Check it out!)

Virgin Mocks British Airlines 

Richard Branson is probably one of the greatest media strategists who has ever existed, and a lot of his success was built on his campaigns that were right on the line.

In the ’80s, as Virgin Airways fought a fierce battle with British Airlines, the underdog Branson constantly found ways to create buzz around his airline. As he recounts in his book, he was woken up at 5:30am one morning and was told that British Airlines, who was sponsoring the London Eye, was failing to…get it up.

Branson immediately pounced on the opportunity. Shortly after receiving the call, he had a blimp flying above the London Eye with this message:

Spirit Airlines: Check Out the Oil on Our Beaches

I’ve flown Spirit Airlines twice, and vowed to never fly them again — but it wasn’t because of these ads. (It’s because of their ridiculous hidden fees and horrible customer service.)

Shortly after the BP oil spill in 2010, the marketing team at Spirit Airlines decided to get on the line with this highly controversial series of ads that featured women covered in tanning oil and the tagline “Check out the oil on our beaches.

Again, they knew what they were doing. They made a calculation that would likely offend people, but the reward made it worth it.

It clearly worked out all right for Spirit, who continued to grow and now has a long history of running highly controversial ads.

JP Morgan Billboard: Bitcoin Will Eat Your Lunch, Jamie

In 2015, in JP Morgan’s annual shareholder letter, CEO Jamie Dimon warned that Silicon Valley was coming eat the bank’s lunch. This caused a lot of stir in the media, and as the stories came out, we decided to pounce and launch a campaign for a client.  

During the massive Miami Bitcoin Conference, we hired a mobile billboard company to drive in circles around the event for three days. The billboard message was simple: You’re right, Jamie. Bitcoin will eat your lunch.

As expected, the campaign went viral, getting mentioned in dozens of outlets and causing a stir at the event. For our client, who has a mission to educate and raise awareness for blockchain, the campaign directly tied into their strategy and got right on the line that they were comfortable with.

Donald Trump’s Entire Life and Presidential Campaign

Love him or hate him, there is probably one thing we can all agree on about Trump — he knows how to create buzz in the media.

That’s not only what his entire campaign was built on, but also much of his career. Since the 1980s, Trump has mastered the art of drumming up media attention — both positive and negative.

During his campaign, Trump made countless offensive comments, leaving many people asking, “How could he be so dumb to say that?!”

I believe his controversial comments were often not accidents — they were carefully calculated and planned out. He knew that while his comments were polarizing and would offend many people, they would speak directly to the target audience that he was trying to reach.

Considering he’s now president of the United States of America, it’s safe to say being on the line worked out all right for him.  

Cards Against Humanity Border Wall

I can’t write about Trump without mentioning this brilliant marketing campaign from Cards Against Humanity.

Every November, Cards Against Humanity releases a new hilarious campaign, and last year they executed a perfectly timed campaign that was right on the line of controversy.

In the campaign — appropriately named Cards Against Humanity Saves America — the company revealed their plan to buy land along the border of Texas and Mexico, break it up into small pieces, and sell the pieces of land for $15. The ad explained that this would create a headache for the government, as they would have to enact eminent domain on thousands of different land owners.

Would this ever actually cause issues with the wall? No idea — I’m not a lawyer or a city planner. But what I do know is that it created massive buzz for the company and created a media storm on both sides.

Nike Joins the Conversation 

Despite the extremely impactful act of hundreds of people burning their Nike shoes in protest of the ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, Nike seems to be doing just fine. It’s been reported that the ad alone increased their value by $6 billion and sold 61% more Nike merchandise than usual. Not bad, considering it just came out a month ago.

Nike had to have known this ad would cause controversy. This wasn’t something they overlooked and were blindsided by (as the case seemed to be with Pepsi). This was a calculation of risk and they decided to take their chances.

The message in the ad — “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” — was in line with Nike’s infamous “Just do it” slogan and came across as authentic and sincere. And it really was an incredible ad.

Salesforce Declares War

Oftentimes, one of the reasons companies don’t pursue OTL ideas is because they believe their industry is “too boring.”

If you want to talk about boring, I’ve got probably one of the most boring industry verticals that exists. Enterprise software. Seriously. Please tell me which industry could possibility be considered more boring than enterprise software.  

Boring is just an excuse because you aren’t being creative enough. Any industry can be boring…if you’re boring. And any industry can be exciting…if you’re exciting.

A few years ago I read Behind the Cloud, SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff’s biography, and in it he talked a lot about his approach in the early days of building the SalesForce brand.  

To build up buzz, Benioff declared war on software and all the software giants. He ran ads like the one below where a SalesForce jet has shot down a “software” plane that happened to be the same color as Oracle, one of their major competitors.

He also staged a fake protest in front of his biggest competitors’ conference and hired a fake news camera to interview the protestors. As he continued his “war on software,” he even considered renting an actual tank and driving it down the street — but in the end, he decided that was a bit much and would cross over to the “prison” side of the line.

The Art of OTL Marketing: Finding the Line

When we talk about being “on the line,” it’s important to understand that the line is different for every company and every industry.

There is no clear path to follow. Finding the line requires a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence about your brand, your industry, your target audience, and the media.

What we do believe, however, is that every industry does have a line. And as the battle for attention continues, the brands that remain on the boring side will struggle, while those that come up with impactful and unique ideas will be the companies that dominate their market.

Here are some tips on how you can implement OTL marketing for your company.

#1 Be Authentic

Don’t be Pepsi. Be Nike. If you’re going to jump into a conversation, especially one that’s controversial, make sure it’s something that is authentic to your brand.  

#2 Prepare to Polarize

Most good campaigns polarize an audience and people will either love the campaign or hate it. Be prepared for the trolls.

#3 Calculate Risk vs. Reward

Successful campaigns really come down to a calculation of risk vs. reward. Any time you execute an OTL marketing campaign, it will have some risks. You just need to make sure it’s a risk worth taking.

#4 Brand Damage

Before you worry about a campaign damaging your brand, take a step back and ask, “Do I even have a brand yet?” Most early stage companies that hesitate on these types of campaigns are so scared of damaging their brand that they never do anything interesting.

#5 Focus on the Story  

As you build your campaign, always stop and ask yourself, “What’s the story?” Sometimes a campaign can be cool and interesting, but it’s not enough to create a story. Internally, we like to come up with a list of ten headlines we’d like to have written about the campaign. If we struggle to come up with headlines, it’s clear we don’t have what we need to make the campaign a media success.

#6 It’s All About Collateral

When you execute a campaign, don’t just think about who will see it that day. For example, if you have a controversial billboard idea, don’t focus on how many cars will drive by and see the billboard that month. Those numbers are completely irrelevant. Your objective should be to create visual collateral that you can distribute to the media and your target audience.

Pulling off a campaign that’s on the line is nerve-racking but if you can successfully make it happen and find your sweet spot, you can break through all the noise and stand out from your competitors, cat videos, and pickles the pig.

Related Articles

DOWNLOAD THE THOUGHT
LEADERSHIP MACHINE FRAMEWORK!