Opinion: Perspective - Why common sense is needed when vetoing ads

By Claire Beale, claire.beale@haymarket.com, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 01 August 2008 12:00AM

Another week, another Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO gay ad row. And another reason for the ad industry to gnash its teeth.

Snickers. You've probably seen it. Speed walker (flouncing arse, yellow shorts) is assailed by tank-riding, machine gun-toting Mr T. "You're a disgrace to the man race," he rages. "It's time to run like a real man." So he shoots our walker with Snickers bars.

Gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign has kicked up a stink about perceived anti-gay overtones in the ad. And Advertising Age's Bob Garfield has written an open letter to Omnicom's chief, John Wren, criticising the communications group for a string of what he sees as homophobic ads.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised in the current climate that the ad has now been pulled. But yet, the fact is still shocking. From all the debate that's raged over the ad, it seems that the HRC view is far from representative yet it's been enough to kill off an ad that cost plenty of time, money and thought to get to air.

And once again, a rather unremarkable commercial is attracting far more remarks than plenty of much more creative, more interesting, more innovative ads running at the moment. So is it all a stunt designed to garner buckets of free publicity? I don't know - because they won't say - what AMV makes of it all, but surely suggestions that the whole thing is a bit of manufactured PR are way off the mark. I suspect the agency team behind the commercial are feeling pretty bowed by the whole affair, caught between the client and a hard place.

Like Heinz before it, it seems that Mars has brought American sensibilities and heightened sensitivities to bear on a UK issue and has, I think, made the wrong decision. The careful checks and balances of the local client, local agency and local advertising pre-testing and pre-vetting systems count for little in the face of this US-centric view of the world.

Just to clarify, the vocal complaints against the ad came from the US, where the ad is not being broadcast. It was created for a particularly British audience with a particularly British sense of humour. But I'd be surprised if Mars stopped to investigate whether reaction here was likely to match that in the US.

The problem is, though, that you can't set geographical boundaries on ads these days. The web has the ability to give everything a global reach. Are advertisers really going to take it upon themselves to ensure every ad produced in every country is not going to offend any group in any other country? That's impossible, of course. At least, it's impossible to do without reducing advertising to global blancmange that has about as much impact. And though the web also offers advertisers new ways to dialogue with its consumers on all sorts of issues, including their ads, must advertisers now respond not just to pressure groups around the world but to chatroom debates and blog comments. Where should they draw the line?

The truth is, too, that the web means ads can't be killed like they used to be. Mars has pulled the Snickers commercial from UK TV screens, but there are plenty of ways to find it on the web and no doubt more people will be seeking it out now than would have bothered before.

Far from withdrawing what it tacitly sees as an offensive ad, Mars has probably given it greater exposure.

So what's the answer? Surely it's to recognise that (in the UK at least) no ad gets to air without very stringent measures to check its suitability for public consumption.

Yes, sometimes mistakes are made, and some ads cause genuine offence where none was anticipated by any of the parties involved in the process. But the truth is that we probably have the best possible system there can be to test our commercials for taste and decency before they run without suffocating creativity. It's time clients recognised that.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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