Advertising’s last taboos

Although toying with social taboos has become a popular advertising ploy, the risksÿ20can outweigh the rewards. Jim Davies probes the industry’s apparent disregard for public sensibilities

Although toying with social taboos has become a popular advertising

ploy, the risksÿ20can outweigh the rewards. Jim Davies probes the

industry’s apparent disregard for public sensibilities

The advertising industry has never been accused of being politically

correct. If the national press is to be believed, ad folk think sacred

cows exist merely to be cut up and sold as hamburgers. Strategy is

paramount, and if sticking to that strategy means putting a few ‘over-

sensitive’ noses out of joint, so be it. Sometimes, though, this gung-ho

attitude can backfire spectacularly.

The furore over Ford’s Credit Options promotional brochure, in which

white faces were superimposed over black ones, put the spotlight on

advertising’s supposed disregard for public sensibilities yet again.

Originally part of Ogilvy and Mather’s ‘driven by you’ campaign in 1991,

the four workers in question had been photographed along with their

colleagues at Ford’s Dagenham plant. When the photograph was used again

in a below-the-line campaign this year, they had mysteriously turned

white. The company’s excuse - that the brochure was intended for Poland,

where the ethnic mix is overwhelmingly white, and that its UK release

was a genuine mistake - doesn’t wash. Either they were part of the Ford

workforce or not. Simple as that.

As Ford and O&M squabble over who’s to blame, the ad industry is being

surprisingly charitable. ‘I can see how it happened,’ Ajab Singh, the

Saatchi and Saatchi art director who has worked extensively on the

recent hard-hitting Commission for Racial Equality ads, comments.

‘Still, there’s no excuse for it,’ he continues.

But if the Ford fiasco represents the more blatant face of racism in

advertising, there’s a more insidious strain of the disease that

permeates the industry.

TBWA’s creative director, Trevor Beattie, calls it ‘corporate racism,

when clients tell you it’s strategically wrong to use a black person in

one of your ads. It’s utter bullshit.’

Most advertising taboos have little to do with contemporary ethics.

‘There’s always a very rational explanation for why you shouldn’t use an

ethnic person in an ad,’ Naresh Ramchandani, joint creative director of

St Luke’s, explains. ‘You can always trot the figures out. If, say, one

in five people in this country are of ethnic origin, that means if you

cast an ad with five people in it one of them should be black or Asian.

But most commercials only have two or three people in them - so what

happens then?’ The answer is they don’t appear at all.

It’s a prickly topic. The issues of tokenism, positive discrimination

and racial stereotyping need to be considered and resolved before any

significant progress can be made. Singh points out that, at present, few

black or Asian people are used to sell aspirational products - washing

powder is one thing, but a car, well that’s quite another.

This position is not only narrow-minded, it’s short-sighted. Saatchis’

‘Bollywood’ commercial for Schweppes’ Oasis, which was art directed by

Singh, was hugely successful. ‘It showed that Asians have a sense of

humour,’ he says. ‘But it also showed the sound commercial sense of

targeting the Asian community. After all, Asians own 95 per cent of

local shops and have massive spending power.’

Pushing for multi-cultural representation in ads is one thing, but using

emotive issues such as race, disability or sexual orientation as a

creative tool moves the taboos debate on to murkier ground. Much has

been made of Oliviero Toscani’s habit of hijacking social issues (HIV,

Bosnia, oil spills etc) for Benetton, but at least the original campaign

showing children of many races with the ‘united colors of Benneton’

strapline had a relevant rationale behind it. However, as the images

became more extreme, the campaign came to appear increasingly gratuitous

and offensive.

Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury’s managing partner, Rupert Howell, believes

the offensiveness of an ad depends primarily on its context. He

describes the Benetton poster featuring a photograph of a new-born baby,

complete with umbilical cord, as ‘wonderful, but entirely inappropriate

for the medium’. Not all of us, Howell explains, want to have such

graphic images thrust in our faces.

The same holds true for last year’s controversial Club 18-30 campaign

through Saatchis. Though it was perfect for its target audience, it was

far from perfect for posters. Significantly, the current Club 18-30

campaign has chosen to use provocative magazines such as Loaded and

Company. ‘The agency had to do its learning in public,’ Howell says.

Howell Henry itself is no stranger to controversy. Before Tango, its

most contentious work was a 1991 campaign for Fuji film, which sought to

raise awareness of racism and disability by highlighting seemingly

trivial instances of prejudice. Fuji sales rocketed. Laudable intentions

or clever marketing ploy? Howell stands firmly by the commercials: ‘It’s

still one of the campaigns I’m most proud of.’

Peter Souter, the deputy creative director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO,

isn’t convinced: ‘I don’t think simply showing that prejudice exists

does anything in particular. Advertising isn’t a social service - we’re

limited in our ability to change prejudices and I’m not sure it’s right

to even try to do so while we’re selling baked beans.’

Souter has similar reservations about Benetton: ‘It’s not going to make

a Serbian soldier think: ‘Damn, I must put this Kalashnikov down.’’

One thing’s for sure, though, toying with social taboos has suddenly

become the hot advertising ploy. There was the storm in a teacup over

O&M’s ‘gay kiss’ commercial for Guinness, the ‘Lolita’ Calvin Klein

press ads and the Harley-Davidson cinema commercial where a biker sends

his wife out on ‘the game’ to pay for his bike. Then there’s the

Goodmans spot that shows a businessman blowing up a plastic sex-doll,

the Lemon Tango ad depicting a bizarre quasi-religious cult, the

Saatchis commercial for Don’t Tell It, which hints at lesbianism and

drug-dealing, and its predecessor, in which a presenter is shot by a

young woman who appears to have most of her bosom protruding from her

jacket. Such blatant sexism is now so ingrained in advertising that the

public barely notices it.

Ramchandani says ads are mimicking Hollywood. ‘For a while, we just

picked up on their film techniques,’ he says. ‘But, from Fatal

Attraction onwards, there were a series of ‘big issue’ films designed to

scare middle America. What we’re seeing in British ads is a similar

syndrome.’ In other words, sensationalism.

Souter believes it’s all about young teams looking for a bit of self-

publicity. Perhaps the only reason serial killers, death, religion and

politics haven’t been incorporated into more campaigns is because the

Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre and Advertising Standards

Association will not allow it.

‘I don’t really think there is such a thing as an advertising taboo,’

Dave Waters, joint creative director of Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters,

says, with disarming honesty. ‘A taboo is just what the regulatory

bodies won’t let you do.’

But for every creative team seeking to push the limits of acceptability,

there’s another one breaking a taboo. The fuss made over the Neutralia

nipple is indicative of Britain’s prudery. So when a commercial

genuinely attempts to discuss something even more intimate, such as

menstruation and sanitary protection, the ensuing uproar is predictable.

It’s been several years since Claire Rayner’s matter-of-fact Vespre

‘wings’ commercial was pulled from TV screens, but it still holds the

record for the number of complaints generated.

Some would no doubt argue that the medium was wrong for Vespre - that

women’s magazines would have been more appropriate.

You cannot apply the same argument to public-awareness campaigns. Yet

commercials for Aids, anti-drugs and anti-drink-drive campaigns

regularly meet with public condemnation. They’re either too grotesque or

too soft, too direct or too oblique.

Admittedly, ads such as Yellowhammer’s ‘heroin screws you up’ campaign

in 1985 miss the mark altogether. The elegantly wasted youth featured in

the posters inadvertently became a teenage heart-throb. But by the very

nature of the subject matter they are trying to address, these campaigns

wander into taboo territory.

What, then, are advertising’s last taboos? Race? Disability? Sex?

Violence? Periods? Drugs? ‘The truth is the final taboo,’ Beattie

believes. ‘Oil of Ulay isn’t the elixir of life. All women aren’t

impossibly beautiful. Not all cars are driven across salt flats. We lie,

not about the products - because we can’t get away with that - but about

life. Life doesn’t have an endline.’

Effective or irresponsible?

Harley-Davidson: A campaign on the theme of irresponsibility showed an old man having to use a Zimmer-frame because his son’s finances had

been dented by the purchase of a Harley

Ford: In the Credit Options brochure black faces were changed to white

Benetton: As its images, inspired by social issues, became more extreme,

the campaign came to appear increasingly gratuitous and offensive

Peugeot 406: The current ‘thoughts’ commercial shows hard-hitting images

of war, death and destruction

Calvin Klein: The ‘Lolita’ press ads caused widespread offence

The COI’s anti-drink-drive campaign: last Christmas focused on


Lemon Tango: True to form, the seriously offbeat campaign to relaunch

Lemon Tango depicts a bizarre quasi-religious cult

Goodmans: The latest ad from the hi-fi manufacturer with a history of

offending the TV watchdogs shows a businessman blowing up a sex-doll

The ‘heroin screws you up’ ad: inadvertently turned its ‘star’ into a


Vespre: The ‘wings’ ad holds the record for the highest number of


The forbidden zone of the future


One day, prostitution may be legalised in the UK. Just think of the

advertising opportunities. Forget tacky calling cards in phone boxes,

we’re talking cable TV, Loaded, and Card Guide racks in Soho bars.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty has already won an award for its work for the

English Collective of Prostitutes, which read: ‘No-one screws more

prostitutes than the Government. In 1990, prostitutes were fined pounds

1-2 million.’ Prediction: an explosion of Carry On-style puns.


When the Independent Television Commission relaxed its position on

advertising funeral parlours on TV, the expected procession of ads

during The Bill and ER never happened. Most funeral directors are small

and local, and prefer a more discreet approach. As funerals become the

concern of national chains, expect a greater presence on TV and radio.

An obvious sponsorship opportunity for Death Cigarettes.


In the US, Fallon McElligott’s work for the Espicopalian Church is the

stuff of legend. A painting of a martyred saint runs with the copyline:

‘If you think being a Christian is inconvenient today, just look back

1,500 years.’ Brilliant. You often find some of the best copy posted

outside churches. As more of them close, expect God’s copywriters to

drift into advertising to spread the good word to the masses.

The dysfunctional family

The white, middle-class nuclear family, so beloved by advertising, will

no longer exist. Agencies will be chastised for daring to incorporate

this dinosaur into their campaigns and condemned for producing

‘yobbish’, non-representative advertising. McDonald’s single parent

commercial has already anticipated this eventuality.


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