10 Ways to Avoid (Or Create) Controversy With A Print Ad

Cautionary tales and how-tos.

Recently, WebDesignerDepot put up a great post of the most controversial magazine covers of all time. The list was presented in chronological order, and it got us here at Hotcards thinking about a few different things. Like, what used to be controversial in print, but just isn't anymore? (women in bikinis). What used to be a non-issue, but is now a huge problem in graphic design? (photoshop disasters) And finally, what kind of problems have stood the test of time?

To answer that last question, we put together a list of 10 things you can do in a print ad which are guaranteed to generate controversy. For some of you, this will be a list of what to avoid. For other, a list of how-tos. The choice is yours.


Naked People

This one's obvious. Nudity is always going to shock some and tantalize others. However, as classic as it is, the beautiful naked woman is a bit played in terms of making jaws drop. If you really want to take your controversial print design to the next level, try featuring aged nudity, obese nudity, hairy nudity, or even (and this will really freak people out) average nudity.

Dead Celebrities

Is it a tribute or a travesty? Using image manipulation to inject famous people from the past into modern scenes always creates buzz, and it's guaranteed to enrage if it involves using revered stars to sell things like tile flooring or bathroom cleaner.

Comparing ANYTHING to Jesus

John Lennon did it best, and he still got a lot of grief for it. But it doesn't seem to matter how secular our society gets, or how often it's used: anytime a design compares the suffering of something or someone modern and secular to the suffering of a religious figure, there's bound to be trouble.

Using Copy To Yell At People

Whether you're asking a question, making a statement, or 'uttering' a threat, folks hate it when words seem to be yelling at them off the page. Unfortunately, this is something that copy can do in millions of different, unintentional ways. If a font is too big or too bold or too capitalized, it's yelling. If a tagline uses the word 'you,' it may be yelling. If copy is asking too many questions, it may be yelling. If it's posing an ultimatum, it may be yelling. And if it talks like it knows you better than you know yourself, it's definitely yelling. These big copy blunders not only get people talking, they get them arguing.

Stealing Images

It happens to the best of us. You're totally at a loss for the perfect image. Maybe the photos you took didn't turn out. Maybe ye olde stock photography site isn't coming through. Whatever the case may be, even big, expensive design campaigns end up stealing images on occasion. And the truth is that usually nothing comes of it. But when you get busted, oh, what a mess it can become.

Lazy Photoshopping

There are entire galleries devoted to blunders of this category. Erase someone's bellybutton, eyebrows, or say, right arm, and you won't set off a firestorm of debate, but a lot of people will notice. And laugh. On the other hand, the controversy will hit when you commit a major design oversight that creates an unintentional joke. Before publishing, get some friends together and ask them to make fun of your design. If they can't, you're in the clear. If they notice that the pretty model has scary man arms, time to redesign.

Photoshopping Race/Sex

It happens all the time. One image is created for use in an ad or promotion of some kind, featuring a racially diverse/homogenous group. Then, as that image is used again for a different campaign or demographic, suddenly that black guy at the table is a white guy, or that white is an asian guy. Or maybe that black guy is suddenly blacker, or a bit less black. Or, and it does still happen, that man is now a woman. Happens all the time, but when you get busted by the blogosphere, watch out!

Breaking Bigotry

You're guaranteed to attract a whole crowd of onlookers if you put something in print, or on a cover, or in the mainstream in some way, for the first time ever. It's getting increasingly difficult to break taboos, of course. It's been a long time since Demi Moore posed naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair. But uproar surrounding how people are depicted (think LeBron James on the cover of Vogue or Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus in Vanity Fair) is still hot. Breaking taboos may make you a hero, or a villain, so always proceed with caution.


Few things drive people crazier than the redesign of a beloved brand, magazine, or website. It plays into our natural human apprehensions regarding change. Everybody wants to chime in with their opinion on why the old design was better, and that generates a mini buzzfest all on its own. This can be a great thing if you were looking to shake things up, but watch out, the backlash – a la Tropicana – can be severe enough to cause the much-dreaded un-re-design, and then we're all just sad.

Upsetting Imagery

Unless you're really trying to make people crazy, avoid references to: violence, natural disasters, hate crimes, and anyone who's ever been referenced as 'history's greatest monster.' Recent screw-ups by the likes of the WWF and Golfweek have lost people their jobs, and caused massive consumer upheaval.

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