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Diminishing Returns on Controversy
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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What exactly does "diminishing returns" mean? The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes it as "benefits that beyond a certain point fail to increase in proportion to extended efforts."

One of our first economic professors illustrated this law extremely well: imagine that you are thirsty. We mean, really, really thirsty. You have no water, you've been out in the hot sun for hours, and you just need some kind of liquid. In the distance, you see a can of Coca-Cola. You are absolutely ecstatic! You suck that baby down. And you keep walking. An hour later, you find another can full of Coke. Are you still thirsty? Of course you are. but are you as thirsty as you once were? Clearly, you are not. You drink it anyway.  Forty-five minutes go by, and you pass a third can of Coke. You begin thinking that if it comes this frequently, you may not need it. You skip the can.

As the example points out, the first can of Coke gave you a huge amount of return. As you continued on your trek, each Coke provided less return. True, you became less thirsty each time you passed one, but the point is that you already decreased the need.

Still here? Good. Now how does this tie in with controversy?

Advertising needs to attract attention, appeal to consumers, and stick in their minds. Usually, the opted tactic is to use or do something controversial. The first time a shop does it, the creative sends a shockwave through all its audiences. There's a buzz around it. But what about the second time? Or the third? 

If shops rely on controversy and being outlandish, the work will diminish in shock value. Can we not all think of campaigns that have fallen to the wayside because of this law? GoDaddy.com is a great example. The first GoDaddy.com girl made the domain site jump to #1; though its growth has been steady, it is hard to say it topped its very first ad. 

Look, we're in advertising. We are not advocating people to stray away from controversy. But we too know the importance of moderation. The more of something we have or receive, the less valuable we think it is, and the lesser impact it will have than others. It's a delicate balance.

Like the economic illustration, we want our controversial ads to be like that first can of pop (or soda, depending where you live): absolutely refreshing, wanted, and satisfying.

Picture: WWF ad comparing tsunami deaths with 9/11.

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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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