20th November 2013

Bonfire of the Vanities

By Michael Wood on Wednesday November 20, 2013

Apparently, in place of the traditional Guy, the Edenbridge Bonfire Society in Kent elected to burn a rather more exotic effigy for this year’s Bonfire Night festivities – of ex-Apprentice contestant and Twitterstorm-monger, Katie Hopkins. Clutching a broomstick, with the slogan “Speak before you think” emblazoned across its chest and attempting to put an oversized foot in its mouth, the 40 ft. likeness was unceremoniously tossed onto the village’s bonfire to atone for the sins of the original.

Known for her controversial views on everything from children’s names, to the lovability of ginger babies, Hopkins has hit headlines a number of times this year. While these opinions have garnered hundreds of unflattering column inches, they have drawn thousands of people to her Twitter profile (68,448 at the last count). And now her antics have caught the eye of the Edenbridge Bonfire Society, a group notorious for burning effigies of celebrities embroiled in scandal, including disgraced cyclist, Lance Armstrong and ‘Sachsgate’ culprits, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Event organisers cited Hopkins’s ‘outrageousness’ – or rather, her ability to provoke outrage – when justifying their choice of victim.

While being (symbolically, at least) set fire to seems a rather dubious honour, I feel this is in fact proof of the press power of Brand Hopkins. Whatever you feel about Hopkins’s views (what’s wrong with ginger babies!?), she has clearly struck a chord with thousands of people across the UK, drawn to her either because they actually agree with what she says, or simply because they enjoy the spectacle. She is not selling any product other than herself, but by sharing her shocking opinions, she has created and cultivated a reputation as a commentator on current affairs, generating coverage and an online profile that has earned her a lucrative column in the Sun newspaper.

Hopkins, of course, isn’t the first to discover the power of controversy in promoting a brand. The airline Ryanair is infamous for provoking outrage by suggesting that it intends to charge passengers for using its aeroplane toilets or even breathing inflight. Meanwhile, the boss of clothes brand Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) has been accused of elitism after stating that he would not like to see his products worn by plus-size consumers.

Having an opinion, particularly an outrageous one, really can grab media attention, whether you’re an individual or a company. Newspapers love reporting them, and consumers lap them up, which is precisely why so many brands make a point of expressing them. By suggesting that customers should expect to be charged for bizarre optional extras, Ryanair can reinforce its image as a budget airline, while the uproar surrounding the comments of A&F’s CEO has strengthened its exclusive, ‘cool’ reputation.

A similar strategy is clearly behind Hopkins’s efforts to further her own career. Already remembered as an opinionated person from her time on the Apprentice, she has made use of her existing Twitter following to disseminate increasingly wild views until it has reached the attention of the papers, attracting new followers, and establishing her as a relevant ‘thought leader’.

Although an extreme example, Hopkins demonstrates that having an opinion will help get a brand noticed. Brands should be careful, however, not to alienate or anger too many people, as they may lose their pull, with obvious repercussions for sales. For brands courting controversy, it’s important above all to remember to “think before they speak”.