The race to the bottom: why agencies keep making offensive adverts

Remember the Hyundai suicide advert? Or the campaign that suggested Flora margarine could strengthen your heart against the shock of having a gay child? Josh Lowe investigates why these deeply offensive campaigns ever see the light of day.

In April this year, Holly Brockwell, an advertising copywriter who blogs as Copybot, wrote a searing open letter to the car company Hyundai and one of their ad agencies, Innocean, about how they had made her sob to the point of nausea with an ad.

The one-minute viral video was based around a simple gag. A threadbare older man has decided to end it all. We know this because we see the taped-up windows of his car, the exhaust feeding in, billowing around him. We assume we are watching a promotional film for MIND. But then, aha! It turns out this tool is even more pathetic than we thought. He’s trying to top himself with his squeaky clean Hyundai ix35, the moron! Didn’t he know, as a line of copy subsequently informs us, that it produces only “100% water emissions”? Our poor sap trudges back to the house, presumably to stick his head in an electric oven or something.

Brockwell didn’t feel able to get in on the joke, as her own father had killed himself in a similar way years before. As she put it in her letter:

I understand better than most people the need to do something newsworthy, something talkable, even something outrageous to get those all-important viewing figures. What I don’t understand is why a group of strangers have just brought me to tears in order to sell me a car.

This has all been discussed before - the ad provoked massive controversy, leading Hyundai to pull it. Their defence, though, was interesting. The FT reported a spokeswoman as saying that the car company had not commissioned or approved the film. The agency chimed in: they had been looking for “consumers’ feedback on creative ideas employing hyperbole to dramatize [sic] a product advantage.” Their only misstep was to do so online, in a prominent place, with people all over the world at the same time.

Once you start to look for it, you realise how pervasive this problem has become. A recent campaign by Lowe and Partners South Africa which advertised Flora margarine as strengthening your heart against the shock of having a gay child was an embarrassment to parent company Unilever, who stressed that it “was not approved”. At the beginning of this year, JWT India produced caricatures of women being abused to great outcry. Ford, for whom the ads were made, denied signing off on them.

“Ad creatives exist in a strange world,” Brockwell tells me. “Their boss wears jeans, the head of HR uses the C-word... making a hilariously tasteless joke ad and sticking it up on the wall in the agency can be a way of letting off steam during a stressful week.” In such a insular, pressurised environment, the responses of outsiders can be a shock: “Those jokes would be perceived extremely differently outside the agency, and when they’re leaked... it’s often only then that the creators see their joke through everyone else’s eyes.”

Ten years ago, Gordon Young, editor of communications and media magazine The Drum, noticed a similar issue. Advertising creatives were increasingly bending or breaking the rules of competitions in order to get tasteless or provocative work entered and make a splash. In response, he created the Chip Shop Awards which recognises “creativity with no boundaries”. “Why try and ban it?” reasons Young, “why not create a platform where they can show it and everybody knows exactly what they’re looking at?”

Why not indeed? Winners of the last awards include a poster of the queen taking a dump to plug Immodium ("Spending Too Much Time On The Throne?") and a spot for popular kids’ boredom-averter Top Trumps depicting a fictional classic entertainers’ set (think Savile, Glitter) and the slogan "Played With Since The 70s". The site carries a hefty disclaimer, meaning that onlookers are likely to view entries and winners with a permissive eye.

When playful platforms like these are available, it’s odd how many other avenues creatives find for releasing their work. One popular forum is adsoftheworld.com, an advertising archive and community which allows anyone to post examples of creative work and receive feedback.

Founder Ivan Raszl found himself at the centre of the aforementioned JWT India/Ford controversy. Creatives from JWT India posted work on the site which demonstrated the capacity of the Ford Figo’s extra-large boot with a cartoon showing Silvio Berlusconi peace-signing to the camera from the driver’s seat with three scantily clad women hogtied in the back, one of them weeping. Another showed Paris Hilton winking while, behind her, grotesque caricatures of the Kardashians struggled to slip their bonds. The internet was not happy.

In a blog written near the time, Raszl explained: “I feel in India... the celebrities and politicians portrayed in the campaign are seen as only comical characters, not as integral players of [sic] the society.” The problem, however, was that “in America the suggestion of sexual exploitation with criminal intent and kidnapping is no laughing matter in any context.” I’m sure many Indians would beg to differ, but his basic point should be familiar to us by now. Out of context, these things blow out of proportion.

So why take the risk of posting there? Raszl thinks creatives often get carried away and misunderstand their superiors: “the client may say on [sic] the meeting; ‘bit risky, but I like it’. And creatives may take it as approval.” His site offers an individual creative or teams of creatives a chance to generate instant publicity. He tells me that “many people [get] new jobs or promotions” as a direct result of uploading ads.

Blaming a tasteless ad on the bravado of art school grads dizzy from consecutive all-nighters is tempting, but everyone I speak to is clear that there is often a darker force at work. “I'm sure these things don't happen by accident as agencies would be too worried about losing clients and agencies and production companies normally have NDA's in place which have heavy financial penalties,” one agency head points out. Often the client, less closely associated with a piece of work than the agency, reaps a double benefit from a leak. They get a publicity spike driven by the off-colour material, followed by a chance to look decisive when they deny all knowledge and condemn the mad men behind it.

For Young, there’s a “checkered background”: sometimes the client is the victim. He suspects, for example, that “Unilever would have been appalled at the Flora campaign.” Sometimes, however, clients leak ads, or at least know they are being leaked, for PR benefit. How can we tell? “I think you’re looking at some of the stuff that works quite well,” he says. Without contradicting their official line, he does bring up Hyundai as an example of a brand he reckons benefitted from a backlash. “It made the brand seem a bit more risque than Hyundai is usually associated with being,” he says, and the ad clearly demonstrated a product benefit: “it was probably very good at getting their message over.”

This is a digital-age phenomenon. The number of platforms available to creatives and the lack of money involved makes this kind of stunt not only infinitely easier, but also allows the client to maintain what Young calls “plausible deniability.” Since accidents do genuinely happen so often, clients can play on public acceptance of that to get away scot free. As Brockwell says, it “creates [a] perfect storm of low risk and high potential... if you can say ‘a bigger boy did it and ran away’ and actually get away with it, why wouldn’t you?”

Is there necessarily a problem here? Young says that the threat of a social media storm makes the industry feel accountable. Nowadays, he points out, the advertising world is disparate and ill defined, and none of its regulatory bodies exercise full control over everything that could be deemed advertising. The possibility of online retribution keeps clients and agencies in check. In my own experience, the prevailing opinion in the communications industries is that debate and outrage are inherently good things anyway.

But Brockwell thinks the industry should be aiming as high as possible. “Advertising contributes to culture in a major way,” she says, “A kid watching TV learns as much about gender roles from the deodorant ad in the break as from the programme on either side. That means advertisers are as responsible for social norms as the people making mainstream content – in other words, very responsible indeed.” Yet what makes advertising interesting to her is the low regard in which it is generally held: “writing for advertising is particularly fun because people hate ads. It’s that much more rewarding when someone praises your ad, because unlike an article or story, they started out hostile to it.”

Brockwell’s point explains why this is more than a harmless case of marketers co-opting moral outrage. Advertisers using poor taste to drive traffic is an insult to the medium they work in. Agencies and clients see the distaste audiences have for being sold to, and rather than either holding off or trying to show them something positive, they bend that distaste to their own ends. At a time when clickbait lurks on our finest news sites and broadcast debate encourages shouting heads rather than talking ones, content creators across all media should take note. It might be easy to shrug off the disapproval of your viewers, but the results won’t be pretty. Besides, trying to change their minds is a lot more interesting.
 

An image from the Flora campaign, put together by Lowe and Partners South Africa.

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

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The triumph of Misbah-ul-Haq, the quiet grafter

How Misbah redeemed Pakistani cricket.

It was an incongruous sight: the entire Pakistani cricket team doing press-ups on the revered pitch at Lord’s, led by its captain, Misbah-ul-Haq. This unusual celebration marked not merely a Test match victory over England on Sunday but something greater: the rehabilitation of Pakistani cricket.

Seven years earlier, the Sri Lankan team bus was en route to the cricket stadium in Lahore for the third day of a Test match against Pakistan when it was attacked by Islamist militants. Gunfire killed six police officers and a driver; several Sri Lankan cricketers were also injured. That was the last Test match played in Pakistan, which, despite protestations, opponents consider too dangerous to visit.

A year later, Pakistan toured England for a Test series. The News of the World alleged that in the final match at Lord’s three Pakistani cricketers had conspired to bowl no-balls in exchange for money. All three received bans of five years or more for corruption. The entire squad was lampooned; police had to shield its members from abuse as they arrived home.

Misbah was on the periphery of all of this. Aged 36 at the time, he was dropped from the squad before the English tour and seemed unlikely to play international cricket again. But the turbulence engulfing Pakistani cricket forced the selectors to reassess. Not only was Misbah recalled but he was made captain. “You have to ask yourself,” he later said: “‘Have I been the captain because they supported me, or because they had no alternatives?’”

Pakistani cricket prizes and mythologises teenage talent plucked from obscurity and brought into the international side. During his decade as captain, Imran Khan picked 11 teenagers to make their debuts, often simply on the basis of being wowed by their performance in the nets. Misbah shows that another way is possible. He grew up in Mianwali, a city that was so remote that: “The culture there wasn’t such that you thought about playing for Pakistan.”

At the behest of his parents, he devoted his early twenties not to his promising batting but to gaining an MBA. Only at 24 did he make his first-class debut, strikingly late in an age when professional sportsmen are expected to dedicate all their energy to the game from their teenage years.

Pakistani cricket has always been “a little blip of chaos to the straight lines of order”, Osman Samiuddin writes in The Unquiet Ones. Misbah has created order out of chaos. He is unflappable and methodical, both as a captain and as a batsman. His mood seems impervious to results. More than anything, he is resilient.

He has led Pakistan to 21 Test victories – seven more than any other captain. He has done this with a bowling attack ravaged by the 2010 corruption scandal and without playing a single match at home. Because of security concerns, Pakistan now play in the United Arab Emirates, sometimes in front of fewer than a hundred supporters.

Misbah has developed a team that marries professionalism with the self-expression and flair for which his country’s cricket is renowned. And he has scored runs – lots of them. Over his 43 Tests as captain, he has averaged at 56.68. Few have been so empowered by responsibility, or as selfless. He often fields at short leg, the most dangerous position in the game and one usually reserved for the team’s junior player.

Misbah has retained his capacity to surprise. As a batsman, he has a reputation for stoic defence. Yet, in November 2014 he reached a century against Australia in just 56 balls, equalling the previous record for the fastest ever Test innings, held by Viv Richards. The tuk-tuk had become a Ferrari.

Late in 2015, Misbah tried to retire. He was 41 and had helped to keep Pakistani cricket alive during some of its darkest days. But the selectors pressured him to stay on, arguing that the team would need him during its arduous tours to England and Australia.

They were right. His crowning glory was still to come. The team arrived in England following weeks of training with the national army in Abbottabad. “The army people are not getting much salaries, but for this flag and for the Pakistani nation, they want to sacrifice their lives,” Misbah said. “That’s a big motivation for all of us. Everyone is really putting effort in for that flag and the nation.”

Now 42, almost a decade older than any cricketer in England’s side, Misbah fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition by playing in a Test match at Lord’s. In Pakistan’s first innings, he scored a century and celebrated with push-ups on the outfield, in homage to the army’s fitness regime and those who had had the temerity to mock his age.

When Pakistan secured victory a little after 6pm on the fourth evening of the game, the entire team imitated the captain’s push-ups, then saluted the national flag. The applause for them reverberated far beyond St John’s Wood.

“It’s been a remarkable turnaround after the 2010 incident,” Misbah-ul-Haq said, ever undemonstrative.

He would never say as much, but he has done more than anyone else to lead Pakistan back to glory. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt