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 deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.