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When a brand gets it wrong: Is viral publicity worth the backlash?


Life insurance firm DeadHappy found itself in the eye of a social media storm recently, when the face of prolific serial killer Dr Harold Shipman emerged on one of its adverts.

The words ‘Life Insurance. Because you never know who your doctor might be’ appeared on the ad, alongside an image of the former North West GP who was convicted of murdering 15 of his patients, and suspected of killing up to 250 more.

The controversial ad was met with widespread condemnation online, branded ‘disgusting’, ‘crass’ and ‘shocking’ by some social media users, along with complaints from relatives of Shipman’s victims.

Alan Royston wrote on Twitter: I’m not #DeadHappy, I’m ‘DeadAngry’! As the son of a Shipman victim I take umbrage at this distasteful, crass style of advertising. This advert is both a slight on good GPs, and the families who suffered. They say there’s no such thing as bad advertising, I hope this is.”


Industry body Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said it is reviewing more than 50 complaints and according to the BBC, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has since placed restrictions on future campaigns.

An FCA ruling states the company “must cease to communicate any further financial promotions that have not received prior approval”, meaning the firm’s future adverts will need to be cleared by its insurance provider, Shepherds Friendly.

Initially defending the ad before complaints rolled in, DeadHappy said using Shipman’s image was intended to be provocative but that “provocative is different to being offensive”, adding that it had been intended to make people “stop and think”. The firm has since apologised and removed the advert.

It’s not the first time a brand has taken risks with provocative marketing campaigns and hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In the race to cut through to consumers in often saturated markets, the shock factor of provocative messaging can tread a fine line towards offensive instead.

“Brands have to translate their message into a story that is relevant, value-led, and in-keeping with the trends that are current and novel, in order to create that ‘viral moment’, but also understand that when there is a significant cultural event, whether it’s right for a brand to associate themselves with it,” Alex Brown, CCO at Campfire, told Prolific North.

Alex Brown
Alex Brown

“It is clear to see with Dead Happy’s latest advertising campaign that some of these rules were disregarded, with them potentially focusing only on the reach this campaign may have received. There appeared to be no sensitivity to the sentiment that surrounds Harold Shipman, and a fairly careless ignorance towards the fact that they were creating content that is likely ‘triggering’ for many of his victims and those people that have been affected by similar events. This has likely damaged brand trust, which will take time to repair.”

Although DeadHappy might have seen a significant uplift in organic search volume and the campaign certainly has people talking on social media, is a viral moment ever worth fuelling outrage?

“We’ve all heard the saying ‘all publicity is good publicity’, however, we have to question whether this is the case with DeadHappy,” said Brown.

“On one hand, the campaign has got people talking and has certainly placed the brand in the limelight… in the Google Trends data of people searching for DeadHappy and there is a significant increase in organic search volume for the brand. So the campaign has certainly got them noticed. However, at what cost?”


“It’s a good example of how social media can impact your brand positively if marketing is done right, and negatively if it’s done wrong. They’re certainly not the first brand to make this mistake in the service of chasing impactful campaigns, and likely won’t be the last.”

When all those likes and retweets start to roll in, pushing the boundaries might seem like a great idea. 

Last year, a Crown Paints advert about ‘Hannah and Dave’ and their baby journey, which was created by Cheshire agency driven, went viral but was painted as ‘offensive’. It sparked hundreds of complaints of misogyny and sexism to ASA. At the time, Crown Paints said in a statement: “whilst the ad has been broadly well received, we appreciate that people have differing views on humour and we apologise if any of the lyrics have caused offence.”

Cheshire-based Moneysupermarket has had its fair share in the limelight too, once holding the title as having the UK’s most complained about advert for Dave’s dance off back in 2017. Complaints rolled in claiming it was ‘overtly sexual’ and ‘offensive’. which the ASA ruled was unlikely to provoke offence.

The line between provocation and offence is a blurry one. Provocation to fuel debate and brand awareness will lure complaints, regardless of what the campaign is for. Bodyform owner Essity spoke to Prolific North last year about its taboo-busting adverts to open up conversations about periods.

“If we don’t cause a bit of outrage and a bit of offence, we’re not breaking the taboo,” Essity’s communications director Gareth Lucy said at the time.

According to ASA’s guidance, if a campaign covers an emotive issue or controversial topic, marketers should take care over how stories are used and should not spread widespread offence.

“Of course, one of the key levers a brand has in creating communications that stand out and create talkability – is to create surprise and to provoke. But at the same time, in terms of simple ethics and basic decency, it is clear that there is a line that has to be drawn when it is absolutely evident that it is simply taking things too far and – especially using reviled and deeply upsetting individuals to create that impact. It is just wrong, thoughtless and self serving,” said Dawn Paine co-founder and CEO of Aurora Creative Agency.

Dawn Paine, Aurora
Dawn Paine

“For some the adage, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, yet I think in the modern, more purposeful and tolerant world we now live in, that mantra is now irrefutably out of date.”

A brand should own up when it does get a campaign wrong and the race to go viral should not impact consumers negatively, explained Brown.

“Everyone makes mistakes and it’s important when these have been made to act quickly, apologise and take ownership of the mistake you’ve made and any negative effect a campaign has had on individuals – which DeadHappy has done,” he said.

“There is a fine line with creating viral content that has a positive effect and creating content that is going to get you noticed. If you want to create content that is going to get you noticed and spoken about, the more sensitive the topic, the more prepared a brand needs to be for the negative backlash that will likely ensue.”

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