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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Pity the Premier League – so much money can get you into all sorts of bother

You’ve got to feel sorry for our top teams. It's hard work, maintaining their brand.

I had lunch with an old girlfriend last week. Not old, exactly, just a young woman of 58, and not a girlfriend as such – though I have loads of female friends; just someone I knew as a girl on our estate in Cumbria when she was growing up and I was friendly with her family.

She was one of many kind, caring people from my past who wrote to me after my wife died in February, inviting me to lunch, cheer up the poor old soul. Which I’ve not been. So frightfully busy.

I never got round to lunch till last week.

She succeeded in her own career, became pretty well known, but not as well off financially as her husband, who is some sort of City whizz.

I visited her large house in the best part of Mayfair, and, over lunch, heard about their big estate in the West Country and their pile in Majorca, finding it hard to take my mind back to the weedy, runny-nosed little girl I knew when she was ten.

Their three homes employ 25 staff in total. Which means there are often some sort of staff problems.

How awful, I do feel sorry for you, must be terrible. It’s not easy having money, I said, managing somehow to keep back the fake tears.

Afterwards, I thought about our richest football teams – Man City, Man United and Chelsea. It’s not easy being rich like them, either.

In football, there are three reasons you have to spend the money. First of all, because you can. You have untold wealth, so you gobble up possessions regardless of the cost, and regardless of the fact that, as at Man United, you already have six other superstars playing in roughly the same position. You pay over the odds, as with Pogba, who is the most expensive player in the world, even though any halfwit knows that Messi and Ronaldo are infinitely more valuable. It leads to endless stresses and strains and poor old Wayne sitting on the bench.

Obviously, you are hoping to make the team better, and at the same time have the luxury of a whole top-class team sitting waiting on the bench, who would be desired by every other club in Europe. But the second reason you spend so wildly is the desire to stop your rivals buying the same players. It’s a spoiler tactic.

Third, there’s a very modern and stressful element to being rich in football, and that’s the need to feed the brand. Real Madrid began it ten years or so ago with their annual purchase of a galáctico. You have to refresh the team with a star name regularly, whatever the cost, if you want to keep the fans happy and sell even more shirts round the world each year.

You also need to attract PROUD SUPPLIERS OF LAV PAPER TO MAN CITY or OFFICIAL PROVIDER OF BABY BOTTLES TO MAN UNITED or PARTNERS WITH CHELSEA IN SUGARY DRINK. These suppliers pay a fortune to have their product associated with a famous Premier League club – and the club knows that, to keep up the interest, they must have yet another exciting £100m star lined up for each new season.

So, you can see what strains and stresses having mega money gets them into, trying to balance all these needs and desires. The manager will get the blame in the end when things start to go badly on the pitch, despite having had to accommodate some players he probably never craved. If you’re rich in football, or in most other walks in life, you have to show it, have all the required possessions, otherwise what’s the point of being rich?

One reason why Leicester did so well last season was that they had no money. This forced them to bond and work hard, make do with cheapo players, none of them rubbish, but none the sort of galáctico a super-Prem club would bother with.

Leicester won’t repeat that trick this year. It was a one-off. On the whole, the £100m player is better than the £10m player. The rich clubs will always come good. But having an enormous staff, at any level, is all such a worry for the rich. You have to feel sorry . . .

Hunter Davies’s “The Beatles Book” is published by Ebury

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories