Is fear of offending stifling your creativity? Take the risk for the greater payback

Are you easily offended? Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether your brand avoids causing any offence to any part of society at any time, writes Rachel Barnes, as she introduces the February issue of Marketing.

In the age of social, it’s impossible to avoid offending someone, some­where, some time. I can spend hours luxuriating in the offending mud of various Comments sections on the national press websites and, especially, Facebook. But the challenge laid down for brands and agencies is that, in order to create winning work that gains traction, they must take risks, creatively go out on a limb.

According to research from Grey London, 87% of people think it is "unjustifiable" to use "bad taste" to sell a product. But one (wo)man’s bad taste is another’s bit of banter. And it is often this tension that creates a connection.

Making an impression

Courting controversy is not just for the likes of Paddy Power; it can be ‘harmless’ fun. Remember the slap-happy Tango ‘Orange man’? He was the cause of sore cheeks and tears for some unfortunates, but the risk paid off. Being controversial gets you noticed, sparks debate and, according to Britvic’s Kevin McNair, people still talk about that ad.

Shocking for the sake of it is clearly an ill-thought-through strategy. And while Paddy Power might appear to dream up such ideas on the fly, every piece of work it devises undergoes the tests of context and relevance. Will people talk about it in the pub and laugh about it? Is it in a relevant sector to the brand? "Some things could pass both tests, and we would still debate whether it is too fruity. But if it’s contextual and relevant, then it is probably OK," Paddy Power CMO Gav Thompson explains, admitting that its Oscar Pistorius ‘Money back if he walks’ campaign was the "wrong side of the line".

87% of people think it is "unjustifiable" to use "bad taste" to sell a product

A good example of a shocking but relevant campaign is Barnardo’s ‘Heroin baby’ ad from 1999. As Lord’s Taverners’ Duncan Lewis says in our Forum, the ad famously pushed the boundaries of taste. But, while many were offended by the image, it was used with compelling cause and strategic need, so few would admonish the approach.

This risky strategy should never be chosen as a quick solution to grab headlines and cheap publicity. However, the fear of a social backlash is not a reason to shy away.

We must give people far more credit for both intelligence and proportionality. I love the way that Sue Primmer, a former Church of England marketer, sums it up: "Being offensive is not the offence here. Creating this spurious, cosy, unobjectionable middle ground in our advertising, which, ultimately, does us no favours, is."

And I am just as susceptible to this risk-aversion. We debated putting the picture from our 'Do we offend you?' feature on the magazine cover, but decided the punk ‘giving the finger’ might just draw too many complaints from some corners.

The question worth asking is whether the fear of any sort of reprisals via the vocal minority on Twitter might be stifling your brand’s creativity. There are times when riding out the initial backlash is worth it for the greater payback.

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