"There's such a fine line between stupid and clever," one member of
Spinal Tap said, when discussing a banned album cover featuring a naked
woman on a leash.
It's a sentiment that has been echoed around plenty of agencies over the
years. Many is the creative director who has found that daring,
groundbreaking ideas can, in the hands of public opinion, become
offensive, scandalous and endangering to career prospects and long-term
The "seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time" feeling is certainly
familiar to Peter Harold, the art director on a Rover 600 ad that
ignited a media firestorm after just one showing in 1997.
The spot, which showed a blindfolded hostage being exchanged in a desert
location who was comforted by the Rover's interior leatherwork, was
attacked by national newspapers and the families of the British hostages
held in Iran at the time.
"A lot of people used it for their own ends," Harold says. "The ad was
meant to be topical, not controversial. We were trying to make it modern
and relevant and say it was the ultimate British car - a little bit of
England wherever you go, but we got it completely wrong,
"In the end we decided to withdraw it because it got so negative. If you
spend pounds 300,000 on a film and that happens, it's not good. It was
terrible at the time, we thought we would be fired."
It is the fact that controversy comes unexpectedly that seems to be a
common link between advertising's true flame-outs.
"We never thought it was going to provoke people," John Hegarty, the
chairman and worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says
of another hastily withdrawn spot - an Allied Dunbar ad featuring an
actor playing a dancing tramp in a musical. "Nobody said to me at the
time, 'this is sensitive and you shouldn't do it'. It hit us later."
With hindsight, it's easy to say that someone at either Ammirati Puris
Lintas or Bartle Bogle Hegarty should have known better. But the truth
is that judging how much is too much in advertising is a particularly
difficult and an inevitably subjective area.
"All art, in some way or another, is trying to provoke," Hegarty
"By definition you're always going to be confronted with this. If you're
not getting letters of complaint then you're not doing your job
As Hegarty points out, plenty of ads, which today seem groundbreaking,
even inspiring, could easily have drawn a very different reaction.
"When we did the One2One ad, featuring Martin Luther King, there was a
question over whether it was offensive or exploitative. I could have
said it might backfire on us, but if we did that every time we wouldn't
do any great advertising."
As it is, risk-taking seems to be alive and well. This year has so far
seen the return of images of suicide courtesy of Barnardo's; the
Thalidomide-impaired actor and presenter Matt Fraser yelling, apparently
into space, about how he wants to be treated differently, for Virgin
Mobile; and, last week, a range of posters for Hamlet miniatures
featuring dwarves in jocular, "Too short to manage" moments.
Yet in many ways, these campaigns were able to defuse potentially
explosive rows through knowing in advance what the likely problems would
Barnardo's, in many ways, ought to have been on the safest ground
because it places shock value in the environment where the public
expects to see it - a charity ad.
It is relatively easy to defend offending people for the good of
society, whereas the idea of what the public perceive as charity cases
appearing in consumer ads is seen as exploitative almost by
However, charity ads cannot always expect a free pass. Not least because
they tend to move into areas sensitive to other charities or interest
Complaints from the family support group Papyrus put paid to a
Barnardo's ad showing a hanging victim that was withdrawn earlier this
week. Yet the campaign continues mostly unscathed. Barnardo's and BBH
knew their work would shock - and took steps to ensure it would not be
crippled by the overall reaction.
Police forensic experts were brought in to ensure suicide-scene mock-ups
were realistic rather than sensationalist. Pre-clearance was voluntarily
sought from the ASA. All in all, evidence was amassed to show that the
campaign was constructed as responsibly as possible.
The primary defence for both Virgin One and Hamlet is inclusion. In both
cases the suspected victims of exploitation are clearly an inherent part
of the creative process.
"We took the issue by the horns, sat down with a stack of dwarves and
discussed it with them," Simon North, the deputy manager of Collet
Dickenson Pearce, says. "They liked them more than most people and
worked with us to come up with situations that they would find humorous.
They were keen to make it implicit that the people in the situations
found them humorous as well."
Hamlet also benefits from an astute media schedule - a crucial weapon
when dealing with risque subject matter. The spots are not running in
lads' mags, an environment that might imply humour at the dwarves'
Media choice can also be used conversely, to whip up further controversy
when pushing the envelope. TV idents for the Irish bookies Paddy Power
showed two grannies racing across a zebra crossing - yet the poster
execution, which grabbed all the attention for the client, appeared to
offer odds on which would be knocked down by a passing car.
The position of Virgin and Hamlet is further strengthened by a changing
attitude to the representation of the handicapped and other minorities
Restriction to appearances in charity spots is increasingly seen as
"For Thalidomide-impaired people, Matt Fraser is seen as a role model,"
Chris MacDonald, the managing partner of Rainey Kelly Campbell
Roalfe/Y&R, says. "The Thalidomide Society sees it as breaking down
barriers. He's not someone you have to hide away."
Yet inclusion, like charity status, does not always guarantee
Ads created with the co-operation of a weakened minority group have been
viciously attacked as exploitative before now.
Witness Benetton's death row campaign for one. The company was this week
forced to apologise for the drive, which featured portraits of killers -
proof that the agreement of the subject is not always enough.
So is there an infallible safety net for the worthy creative director
scratching his head before signing off on another risque piece of
The one argument that seems to fit is integrity - ads that judge it
right are using images which, however extreme, fit their product or
"That was always my complaint against the Benetton ads," Hegarty
"There was no connection between what they were saying and what the
brand was doing."
On the other hand, there's an obvious link between dwarves and miniature
Or is there? Perhaps, at the end of the day, integrity is a matter of
subjective judgment too.