Causing a commotion. Is controversy a worthwhile addition to the event planner’s toolkit?

In 2011, Ricky Gervais was warned he would never work in Hollywood again after his controversial turn presenting the Golden Globes. It had been his second time as host of the awards ceremony and the creator of The Office had caused utter and complete outrage from certain sections of the U.S media after ripping into his Hollywood elite audience.

It must have been particularly pleasing for the British comedian therefore, to have taken to the same stage in Beverly Hills for a fifth time earlier this month, to once again sow controversy with his particular brand of put-down hilarity at the expense of the film industry glitterati.

Ricky Gervais Golden Globes

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Those Hollywood stars who failed to hide their affront to Gervais’ jokes in 2011, and who still don’t appear to have warmed to his stand-up routine at the fifth time of asking (we’re looking at you Tom Hanks), must have wondered why broadcaster NBC decided to bring back the ceremony’s most controversial host. Over the last three years, NBC had played it safe with talk-show presenters Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Rogan, plus 2019’s instantly forgettable compering by actress Sandra Oh.

It wasn’t as though Gervais’ previous stints as Globes host had pulled in significantly higher TV ratings either (his 2016 appearance attracted around 18.5 million viewers, which is about the same as Sandra Oh’s effort).

The Gervais gift that keeps on giving however, is something that event planners everywhere would bottle if they could – the ripple effect of shareable content.

His opening monologue is not only replayed the world over but also spliced and diced into clips, memes, and other forms of media, whilst being discussed on every available linear and non-linear channel for weeks, if not months after the physical event.

Gervais’ ability to cause indignation and controversy through his joke writing and performance ensures that the Golden Globes isn’t just another film awards ceremony during a long season of acceptance speeches and back-slapping. It’s the must-see event of the film and TV awards calendar.

Even if you couldn’t name half-a-dozen winners of this year’s coveted trophy, I’d be willing to bet my house that you’ve seen the Tom Hanks face of disgust meme, read the laughable accusations that Gervais overshadowed vital political statements from woke actors, or googled his joke about Judi Dench “licking her ass”.

Fanning the flames of controversy – does it work for events?

Controversy in events

So, is stirring up a bit of controversy good for the longevity of all types of events? Should planners everywhere be implementing shock-tactics to make the company’s annual kick-off conference the most talked about event of the year?

The impact of memorable content is indisputable. By being brave, taking a stand and giving your event brand an authentic identity (even if that means adding something controversial), is the reason this time last year we were all debating and searching up the new Gillette TV advert, which highlighted toxic masculinity under the tagline ‘The Best Men Can Be’.

It’s also the reason Nike adopted the provocative image of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the American national anthem before the start of a 2017 NFL game at Wembley Stadium, as the brand’s ‘Just Do It’ advert.

Be aware however, authenticity and context are the secret sauce to controversy’s success. Without these two elements, you’re left with Kendall Jenner offering a riot officer a can of Pepsi at a multiracial rally, in an advert widely condemned for exploiting the #BlackLivesMatter protests.

Ricky Gervais can laugh-off the accusation that he cheapens an awards platform used by actors to make political and environmental statements because his carefully crafted jokes are authentic to the context of an event with a remit to entertain.

If he’d opened last year’s United Nations’ Climate Summit with his Golden Globes joke about Greta Thunberg – “You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg” – he may have had a case to answer.

So, when booking and briefing a speaker or weighing up the potential impact of a planned piece of risqué event content, ask yourself three questions – ‘is any resulting controversy justified within the context of the event’s objective?’ ‘Will an audience’s ability to share content in a plethora of digital ways serve that objective in a positive way?’ and, ‘am I being authentic to the values of the event by risking controversy’.

If the answer to all three of these questions is ‘yes’, then fan the flames of controversy by all means. Just be prepared to feel the heat.

Mike Fletcher

Written by Mike Fletcher

Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for almost 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor. He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.