A small pizza chain recently ran a very interesting promotion: Order your pizza in Spanish and you get it for free. Everybody seemed to have an opinion on the promotion. The Conservative Caucus group was incensed by the need to speak Spanish. The Latin community felt it was being used as a pawn. And the company, Pizza Patrón, simply said it was trying to promote multiculturalism. (By the way, what’s wrong with learning another language? It’s done in our schools every day.)

This begs the question: What was Pizza Patrón thinking? Why would a company put itself at the center of such a firestorm? I’ll tell you why. How else can a very small company get such priceless publicity for its name?

Why is this important? We know from years of experience and reams of research that top-of-mind awareness is key to the success of any quick serve. When the customer says he is hungry and wants a pizza, my pizza company’s name must be the first he thinks of, because if it is, I get the sale.

Being top of mind is the heart of our extremely competitive business. That’s why companies do what they do to get it. They spawn controversy, irritate, and even appear politically incorrect to keep their name in front. Some even become nice guys. Let’s take a closer look.

Years ago, a famous soap company had an advertising strategy based on irritation. It felt that if it could irritate the viewer enough with picture, sound, or situation, its name would be remembered. It was right, and it became even more successful. There have been characters created as mascots for quick-serve companies that admittedly scare little kids. We inadvertently created one at McDonald’s and had to make some quick changes to correct our mistake. The original Grimace was scaly, mean-looking, had four arms, and had no charm whatsoever. He scared kids. We changed him to a soft, plush, two-armed blob of a sweetheart who only wanted McDonald’s milkshakes and to hang out with Ronald.

Speaking of characters who become the personality of their restaurants, I knew a guy who decided that irritating his customers would boost sales. When you walked into his place, he yelled at you for your order. If you didn’t answer immediately, he threw you out until you knew what you wanted. And heaven help you if you ordered a corned beef on white with mayo.

Being politically incorrect is another way to get awareness—if you can take the heat of your incorrectness. Of course, political incorrectness changes with the times. In the ’70s, quick serves were a treat, not a necessity as they are to many people today. We were trying to get people to think of McDonald’s as an alternative to cooking every night, and we did a spot where three moms with kids were in their kitchens trying to come up with that night’s dinner. As they consider another boil in a bag, the three dads burst into the kitchens and sing about how they all deserve a break at McDonald’s. If we ran this ad today, do you think we might be a little politically incorrect?

There is a famous story in public-relations land that I’m not sure is true, but I have heard it told in numerous presentations about political incorrectness. A certain airline ran a promotion encouraging businessmen to take their wives along on business trips. Many did, so the airline thought it would be nice to thank the wives for accompanying their husbands by sending them letters. Problem was that many of the wives had no idea what the letter was talking about. They never went on that business trip to Bermuda. But hubby did.

Political incorrectness stretches to what you say about your company, too. I recently was involved with a group advocating honorable peace in the world. I talked to a car company that happened to have defense contracts in its portfolio. Leaders there told me they could not sponsor peace because they made money on war. This goes to show, you’ve got to be careful.

OK, one more classic ad that could not run today. And really, I’m not sure what the writer was thinking when he wrote it. It shows a businessman and woman at a postage meter in an office. From the look on the man’s face, the woman just used the last postage in the machine and he needs to mail a letter. The tagline: “Is it always illegal to kill a woman?”

History suggests you can be controversial, irritating, and politically incorrect to foster top-of-mind awareness, or you can be a friend, a nice guy. Fortunately, this is the road McDonald’s decided to take. We avoided the big three as much as we could. We tried to find the potential problem in anything we did and correct it. Our theory was that you would buy from a friend much more readily than someone you didn’t like.

Of course, we made mistakes, too. We tried to make Ronald appeal to older kids, and in doing so had him playing golf and pool and ignoring little kids. Even the actor was uncomfortable in those spots. We used classic actor John Houseman to sell quality. No one believed him in those ads. And when we invented tween advertising, we made mistakes in how we talked to the kids. You can’t be too familiar or they will shut you out.

By the way, if you are going to make fun of anyone, stick with white males. You can get away with it. There is no national association standing up for white males. They’re fair game for building awareness. Of course, you might want to be careful about inventing a product for only white males, as a certain soft drink found out.

Figure out how you want to do it, but remember how important top-of-mind awareness is to your business. That’s the objective, and you decide how you want to accomplish it.

Happy Trails, a Peaceful Life, and Superb Awareness.

Marketing & Promotions, Pizza, Story, Pizza Patron