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Leaning into controversy.

Leaning into controversy.

Mike Doane

Rockstar Games used negative user reviews as an advertising strategy for the launch of Grand Theft Auto 5.

Every GTA launch is rife with controversy — so the marketing team at Rockstar Games decided to lean in and make the controversy and selling point.

Grand Theft Auto 5 is the second best-selling game of all time and sales of this controversial game aren’t letting up. It’s been launched on three generations of consoles and has a 7+ year sales streak.

How did the controversy surrounding the game lead to more sales? Let’s take a look…

No publicity is bad publicity

The game series has been cited by politicians, moralists, and parents as a sample of everything wrong in our society. It’s been blamed for everything from violence in schools to increases in drug and alcohol usage.

Instead of defending the game series and their motivations behind creating it, the team at Rockstar Games decided to generate more outcry for the launch of Grand Theft Auto 5.

Rockstar’s PR guy, Max Clifford, basically took the modern PR playbook and kept the controversy as high-profile as possible. The more politicians and advocacy groups involved, the better. They even went as far as paying reviewers to bad-mouth the game and express their outrage at its content.

Same old story, different day

You may think advertising strategies like this are something new.

Back in the ‘90s, SEGA went head-to-head with Nintendo by introducing an edgier video game brand made for teens. They also planted brand reps at colleges to talk up new games.

Rebellion sells and controversy is an extension of that. If you figure out an angle that can create controversy around your product but still upholds your brand’s values, don’t be afraid to lean in.

— Mike