50 Shades of Grey: A Public Relations Study in the Benefits of Controversy

One of the many things that the advent of the internet and social media has increased to an alarming degree is propensity for controversy to thrive and be debated amongst the public, in a scope never before seen.

Many tend to view controversy as something negative and to be avoided. In many cases this is not the wrong approach to take. But sometimes controversy can be used to one’s advantage when selling something to the public, be it yourself (as many celebrities do, see Miley Cyrus) or a product you have created that may disgruntle enough people to get the rest interested.

In the Western world, one subject is always liable to spark controversy and be talked about and that is the area of sex.

Enter today’s topic: 50 Shades of Grey  by E.L. James.


How it all Started

Fifty Shades of Grey begin as fan fiction of the extremely popular and successful teen series Twilight, a teen-vampire romantic saga, but then became a literary phenomena of its own volition that in many ways surpassed its predecessor. The major difference between Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey?

SEX. Lots of it.

When the teen romance grew up into the genre of ‘mommy porn’ it surpassed the most talented current achievements in literature both monetarily and in media coverage. It touched a specific nerve in Western society: that of a vanilla house wife fantasy; taking a trip down the rabbit hole into a world of sensual secrets, sex scenes, and gritty acts B.D.S.M.

The plot revolves around recent university grad Anastasia Steele (the protagonist and narrator) being stalked and then seduced by a business mogul and billionaire Christian Grey. Before long, the pair embark on a path towards sexual enlightenment as Anastasia enters Grey’s cold, controlling world of sadist machismo sex. The protagonist is introduced to his “toys” and governing nature, and Anna must overcome her own personal reservations to satisfy him.

What Made it Work

Many a bibliophile would roll his/hers eyes at the works of E.L. James’ in 50 Shades of Grey. However one cannot discount the major international success the book series has become, with the first novel being adapted into a film and the rest to be released on-screen in the future. I don’t need to tell you that a film being made from your book is a huge success for you as a writer, even if the film is critically panned or flops at the box office. As the author, you have already been paid for the rights to your written work.

The fact of the matter is that sex does indeed sell. Where 50 Shades of Grey has the edge is it is kinky, B.D.S.M. but dressed up to be a classier kind of book. A very clever marketing campaign used a discreet, classy cover (the now famous grey tie of Christian Grey) to attract readers who would perhaps not have bought a novel with a more explicit cover.

As well once the novel hit the mainstream it began to be talked about, largely due to its graphic sex-focused narrative which involved plenty of “taboo” acts revolving around the B.D.S.M. theme. As more people talked about it, on the internet, in the news, the book became a household title. It hardly mattered that it was criticized for its content and its writing (the author admits she wrote parts of it on her Blackberry phone) once the internet exploded with those criticizing and praising it alike the more readers decided it was worth purchasing to take a look.

The novel began breaking records in the U.K. and repeatedly getting on the best-sellers list, despite its largely negative reviews. The film that followed was also a financial success, with a net profit of $571 million weighed against a $40 million production budget.

The Lesson Here

The first book of this series was turned into a film, that was released in 2015 and the second, Fifty Shades Darker, is set to come out this February. The whole stigma behind this book is continuously emphasized in all of it publicity. The first film was released around Valentine’s Day in a tactful maneuver to encourage fans to go out and buy  Fifty Shades of Grey themed sex paraphernalia.


There was a huge marketing opportunity to create products specific to this franchise which morphed into The Fifty Shades Fantasy line of uniquely sexual merchandise. Both the filmmakers and the author benefited enormously from this bold stroke of public relations brilliance. Fifty Shades of Grey became a brand, starting a sex toys line; anything and everything that had been or could be used in the book/film was now available for purchase.

So in the phenomena that is 50 Shades of Grey as a work of the written word we can see the value of a strong understanding of public relations and how best to market your work, based on its strengths. It wasn’t just the graphic sex scenes that made the book a success, it was the clever marketing of E.L. James and her PR team (as well as the film studio’s own public relations spin) that caused 50 Shades of Grey to transcend the genre of romantic fantasy and become a thoroughly discussed and debated topic all across the Western World.

Not despite the controversy surrounding it but because of it.


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