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
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.