It seems nothing is sacred anymore. Everything, from Batman to Bugs Bunny, is getting edgy and snarky these days. While some of it may be funny or entertaining, this is not a wise promotional marketing strategy. Unless your business embraces irreverence as part of a branding strategy, avoid controversy like it’s a snake that will bite you. Controversy may be good for political pundits, but not for businesses trying to promote legitimate goods or services.

It may be tempting to generate buzz at your next tradeshow with a risqué giveaway that will grab people’s attention (because you’ve heard that sex sells, right?) But not everybody has the same twisted sense of humor that you do – and they may not take your “coolest, funniest giveaway ever” in the spirit it’s intended.  Keep in mind that even if you aren’t supporting your tradeshow and promotional marketing activities with tie-ins on social media, your customers may do it for you. It only takes a few clicks to make a photo or video & post it on Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook. And the more embarrassing it is, the more likely that word (and the images) will spread. You really don’t want to have that kind of viral marketing working for you!

Sometimes it’s a challenge to know whether the clever promotional tagline that you came up with crosses the line between edgy and inappropriate. That hilarious saying you want to print on a t-shirt might offend some people – maybe even the very demographic you are trying to attract. To avoid such Focus Grouppromotional disasters, get a second opinion (and a third & fourth wouldn’t hurt!)  Large corporations and ad agencies have the luxury of doing extensive testing on proposed marketing campaigns, and they still sometimes blow it. Small businesses typically don’t have lots of resources, but what you can do is create your own focus group to serve as a sounding board. Find a few independent, unbiased people, buy them lunch and get their unbiased feedback on what you’re considering. The more diverse the group of people, the more likely you’ll avoid a marketing faux pas. If you aren’t up for that, at least ask your Mom, your spouse, or even hey, your promotional marketing consultant.

Obviously, there will always be room for debate about what’s appropriate and what’s not, especially if the demographic being reached is one that thrives on or wants inappropriate data. Still, it is always best to err on the side of caution when going into a promotional campaign. A recent example of such a campaign that ended up doing more harm than good was the American Breast Cancer Association's bracelet and t-shirt promotion that used a colloquial term and a saying that many found offensive, even though the cause was a good one.

Stay out of the fray of controversy and remain appropriate. Use common sense and remember that with today's digital world, nothing is temporary. The mistake made today will be used against you and come back to haunt in the future. Stay smart.