Fear and Loathing in Advertising?

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Echoing the discussion that started a few days ago in the comments section of my Advertising & Response post (scroll down one or two posts), here is something I found on Jeremy Fuksa's The Martini Shaker blog this morning. It speaks to the sensitivity of American audiences when it comes to advertising:

I was enjoying some drinks with fellow Kansas City Ad Club members last night and we were talking about ads that were being perceived as being offensive... in particular the wildly popular “Caveman” campaign from Geico.

Yes, at face value the campaign is about how the cavemen feel that they are being discriminated against and being made fun of. But, you might be interested to know that real-life groups feel that these cavemen are representations of them. There’s suggestion that with the Taliban-esque beards and the fact that they are “cave” men, these spots might target Muslims. There’s a suggestion that homosexuals are the butt of the joke because the cavemen dress well, enjoy the finer things in life, and of course, there was the spot at the restaurant where the two cavemen were together...

Now today, we have the news that a recent “got milk” bus stop campaign that exudes the scent of freshly baked cookies was pulled because special interest groups argued that the smell of the ad was offensive to diabetics, obese people, and the homeless.

And you wonder why both clients and agencies in North America get gun-shy about pushing the envelope with the creative.

You know what? I used to share an office with a co-worker who found the TV show "Friends" offensive because it was way to overtly sexual. She also found most advertising too sexually suggestive.

Two words for people like her: Grow up.

If you feel like getting up in arms about something real, start with the daily death toll in Africa due to famine, war and AIDS. If that doesn't offend your sensibilities, look at how little is being done to try and save lives there by countries, organizations and people of influence who could really make a difference. That's something worth being genuinely offended about.

Well-dressed bearded cavemen in a funny insurance ad are not.

I won't go as far as to suggest an unapologetic shock-visual approach like Benetton's in the eighties and nineties (which didn't make any sense whatsoever given the company's image and success... but worked surprisingly well, at least for a little while), but if your brand wants to be a maverick, if it wants to inspire the bold, the rebels, the fringe dwellers (basically, the early adopters and influencers), you have to be willing to take chances. That means running the risk of offending people who have nothing better to do than be offended about everything and nothing.

Assuming that your ad wasn't purposely offensive and/or in very bad taste, there are two approaches to dealing with offended folks:

The first - Cater to the crowd you are trying to create a dialogue with, and don't worry about the prudes who just want to make noise. Imagine yourself being asked to comment about special interest groups who might have complained about your campaign. It shouldn't be more than a shrug, a friendly smile, and something along the lines of "we don't expect to be everyone's cup of tea. That's okay. I'm sorry these people have nothing better to do than complain about nothing."

Or maybe "Frankly, we're flattered that group xyz noticed our ads. All this time, we thought they were too busy burning books to even watch TV. That's great news."

Okay... never mind.

The second - Use your detractors' fervor as a boost, much like the marketing folks pushing "Black Christmas" did in their latest TV spots. Quick background: "Black Christmas" is a violent horror movie opening on Christmas Day that takes Christmas and turns it into something dark and evil. Christian and family groups are up in arms about it, as expected. In just its second week of TV spots in the South East, the trailers have been modified to address the complaints. Now, the voice-over intro goes a little something like this: To the people who are offended by a horror movie about Christmas... You haven't seen anything yet! In other words, if your product or brand is aggressive, be aggressive. If part of your appeal is shock value, embrace the fact that you're going to shock people. Make a stand. Have fun. Be a rebel. Be Manson. Be Zombie. Be Craven. Be Thompson. Be Palahniuk. Be Maher. Stand for something, and challenge your detractors. Invite dissent. Invite controversy. If you have the huevos, become controversy. It isn't for everyone or every product or brand, but if anything, at least people will know what you stand for, and there's a lot to be said for that. However small it may be, as long as youare good at what you do, you will attract a pretty rabid fan base.

The last thing you ever want is to be so PC, so vanilla, so boring and tepid that you will end up kind of appealing to everyone and no one in particular. Or appealing to some for no other reason than you're... comfortably average. You don't want to be the soft nameless middle. The good enough. The okay. The somewhat mediocre but safe.

If you missed the link a few paragraphs ago, check out this little piece on BrandChannel.com. (Don't worry, it's super short.) If you don't believe that bold can work for any brand as long as it embraces bold, you may change your mind. Sure, the more shocking the campaign, the shorter-lived its effect will be, but there are great lessons to be learned from the Benetton example.

Just get ready though, because bold is always going to rub somebody the wrong way. Especially in the US... or in... Iran. Heck, just about everywhere except Scandinavian countries, where people don't seem to get offended much. Maybe they know something we don't. Or maybe they aren't a bunch of pampered little overfed babies with nothing better to do with their free time than get caught up in prepackaged, self-serving dramas.

We're really starting to turn into a bunch of wusses. And for no damn good reason.

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