Bad taste marketing: the risky business of gaining enemies to win friends

'Ride me all day for £3', 'Are you beach body ready?', 'Taste the Bush', 'The only Aussie we don't want to get out'. These four ad taglines and their accompanying imagery caused serious offence in 2015, and grabbed the nation's attention for all the wrong reasons. But, does the old adage that all publicity is good publicity ring true in these cases? Do people like to feel outraged to some extent, or are we reaching the point where bad-taste ads put consumers off a brand for good, asks Suzy Bashford.


gencies often complain that their clients aren’t brave enough; that they’re too conservative; that they dilute good ideas, turning them into unrecognisable, unremarkable compromises. However, recent research from creative agency Grey London reveals that taking the safe, middle road may be wise, because 87% of people think it is "unjustifiable" to use "bad taste" to sell a product and 65% that it’s "never acceptable" for ads to be in bad taste.

The ASA welcomes this news as evidence that endorses its mission to ensure advertisers adhere to its guidelines. Its director of communications, Craig Jones, says: "It doesn’t surprise me. It shows we’re right to dedicate resource to police the rules, so we make sure people don’t have ads forced on them that cause them to feel offended." He adds that it is "unwise" to pursue shock strategies
because, as well as being a waste of creative work, if ads are banned, they "can damage the relationship of trust with the consumer".

Perhaps you’re now breathing a sigh of relief, comforted that the pressure to push your brand out of its comfort zone has been relieved, so you can return with a clear conscience to painting depictions of perfect, safe, anodyne lives that don’t risk upsetting anyone, ever. But hang on; before you pull that creatively courageous campaign you’ve been sitting on, let’s consider the stats beyond their face value.

As Tom Ollerton, marketing and innovation director at We Are Social, says: "Not taking a risk is the riskiest thing you can do today. If your content is not shareable and social, it’s toast: people don’t share bland things."

Britvic agrees. Its Tango soft-drink brand, for example, has a history of producing memorable ads such as ‘Orange Man’, in which the eponymous character slapped a Tango-drinker’s face. The ad was hugely popular, but also offended some, as children began copying the "Tango man". "Naturally, the ad was banned," says Britvic GB marketing director Kevin McNair. "Had the brand team not been prepared to take a risk and run with the concept, we would have lost a great ad. Being controversial is not a bad thing. It gets noticed and sparks debate. People still talk about the ad now."

One brand that has successfully managed to build its brand, and profits, on the basis of purposely causing a stir in a very public way, with its edgy marketing, is bookmaker Paddy Power.

Its marketers have consistently ruffled feathers. While the marketing seems to be based on spontaneous reactions to the news agenda, there is a huge amount of science and data-crunching behind the ‘mischief’. For instance, there are clear and rigorous guidelines on what the brand believes is offensive and would constitute overstepping the mark.

This is cited as being of importance by Paddy Power’s CMO, Gav Thompson, who does not subscribe to the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ school of thought.

"We always apply the tests of context and relevance. Is this subject contextual? Could our customers be discussing it in the pub tonight? Could one of them be telling it as a joke to their friends? Would their friends laugh? And is it relevant? Relevant to either sports or gambling, or both?" says Thompson. "If it passes both these tests, then it is probably on the right side of the line for us. Occasionally some things could pass both these tests, and we could still debate whether it is too fruity, but this doesn’t happen very often. If it is contextual and relevant, then it is probably OK."

However, one Paddy Power ad that did run, but Thompson concedes probably should not have, was the Oscar Pistorius ‘Money back if he walks’ campaign. Made before he joined the company, it caused a furore for being in bad taste. Thompson describes it as being the "wrong side of the line", despite the fact that it generated significant coverage.

Timing is crucial, as is gauging the public mood, which can turn on a knife-edge. As Thompson points out, while Paddy Power’s ‘Immigrants’ lorry execution passed the context/relevance test in June 2015, it probably wouldn’t today, given how events have unfolded since. Its tagline was ‘Immigrants, Jump in the back! (But only if you’re good at sport.)’.

Whether you are a fan of Paddy Power or not, you can’t deny the wordplay prowess and intelligent newsjacking that has come to epitomise the brand. It has a deep understanding of how to harness the energy of an emotional reaction to its marketing and, at times, has used this momentum as a force for genuine good. Take 2014’s Football World Cup, where it pretended to carve "C’mon England" into the Amazon rainforest.

Protein World: ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’, 2015

"It shocked people to the core and generated an enormous reaction," says Thompson. "It was soon trending globally, with the brand getting the sort of abuse that Malcolm Tucker [foul-mouthed spin doctor in TV show The Thick Of It] would blush at. Even the hobbit from The Lord of the Rings [actor Dominic Monaghan] waded in [tweeting that] Paddy Power were ‘brainless wankers’. But this level of shocking and offending people was, of course, all planned in advance and so was sucking up the abuse to grow it into a story. We had planned the ‘reveal’ after 24 hours to say it was all a contrived, computer-generated stunt to raise awareness about deforestation in the Amazon."

After the public realised it was a stunt, Paddy Power was swiftly forgiven and #SaveTheRainforest started trending on Twitter instead. This is a powerful example of a brand stopping consumers in their tracks and getting them to think about a serious global issue.

Charities are similarly adept at using shock tactics to raise awareness in this way. Barnado’s ‘Heroin Baby’ ad, which featured a baby injecting drugs as part of a wider series depicting children in adult situations, is a prime example. Nonetheless, even they need to beware of overstepping ‘the line’. While it might be acceptable to use controversial imagery to drive debate and thought, the NSPCC’s head of marketing, Tessa Herbert, does not believe that it is "ever acceptable to be offensive just to drive donations". "Sometimes charities do need to paint a picture for the viewer that can be distressing, so they understand how important it is to act," she says.

"A shocking ad in itself doesn’t have to mean it’s bad taste, it’s just really important there’s context and authenticity, and a reason for using shock to grab attention. But, even in those scenarios, there is always a judgement that has to be made, and the sector generally takes that judgement very seriously."

Perhaps the charity’s most memorable ad is ‘Cartoon boy’, which ran during its ‘Full stop’ campaign. The team judged that a ‘live-action’ approach to the child-abuse subject matter would offend people too much, so they opted to use an animation instead. It was still perceived as offensive by some, but, undoubtedly, more complaints would have been received if a child actor had been used, rather than a cartoon.

Barnardo’s: ‘Heroin Baby’, 1999

Someone who knows all about causing offence via an ill-conceived creative is Garry Lace, now marketing, mood and product partner at innovation consultancy Three Little Things. He oversaw the ‘Career women make bad mums’ bus poster for the Outdoor Advertising Association in 2010, which was withdrawn for causing offence. As ‘Mumsnetters’ took to the social-networking site to register their rage (and write haikus about the size of his genitalia), Lace quickly discovered that hell, indeed, hath no fury like a working mum scorned.

So, what did he learn (apart from the fact that mums can be a creative bunch)? "That if you’re trying to start a debate, make it clear that that’s what you’re trying to do. Our execution made it look like that was our opinion [because the word ‘Discuss’ was only in small print at the foot of the poster]. Also, be very aware of the kinds of online groups within the target audience among which you are trying to raise a debate. Engage them before the campaign breaks.

If you are going to put something out there that you believe will cause controversy, make sure you have your internal ducks in a row – someone who is dedicated to doing that and is well-briefed. The controversy took me out of my day job for two weeks, as I did literally nothing else but deal with the consequences from pressure groups including, but not only, Mumsnet."

For her part, Mumsnet chief executive Justine Roberts believes the case study shows that, if you’re going to "take pot shots to get a rise out of people, it’s best not to target a group that’s already on the receiving end of systematic discrimination: they’re unlikely to find it funny". She adds that questions of "taste and decency" have become "surprisingly, more tortured, rather than less" because the 24/7, always-online social culture has exposed the "huge diversity of opinion, with many nuanced shades influenced by myriad different factors".

One point on which Lace and Roberts agree is that this culture means there will be an increasing reluctance by brands to put their head above the parapet and, so, a tendency toward bland, sentimental, unchallenging advertising. Surveys such as the aforementioned by Grey London don’t help, because they give marketers, some of whom are already veering toward conservatism, validation for uninspiring, uncontroversial work.

To make the creative climate worse, market forces are already conspiring to narrow people’s horizons with programmatic, serving similar ads based on what a person already likes, and the ‘filter bubble’. Grey’s chief strategy officer EMEA, Leo Rayman, explains internet activist Eli Pariser’s filter bubble concept. He says: "We have all these amazing opportunities to access every musical taste, every political taste, or every sexual orientation in the world… except we don’t.

We basically go online and create a filter bubble where we choose to see and connect to people who are like us. So society is becoming more atomised and individuals are less likely to come into contact with ideas that are challenging to them." Marketers say they want to create meaningful brands; to be part of the cultural fabric of society; a force for good.

Marketing can’t do that if it’s bland. It can do it only if it challenges audiences to see new, potentially uncomfortable perspectives. Sue Primmer, head of marketing at financial markets consultancy Catalyst Development and a former Church of England marketer, is worried about the trend toward "very good taste, unintelligent and extremely dull advertising".

"‘Ad verto’ means ‘turning toward’," she says. "But rather than helping people to turn toward the threat of global warming, or a war we don’t understand or an obesity crisis fuelled by overdosing on sugar, what are we doing? We’re banning a short film of the Lord’s Prayer to curl up with a CGI pussycat instead."

Should all brands be trailblazing, purpose-led challengers? Isn’t there a role for some to comfort consumers via escapism? Primmer doesn’t think so. "To live in ignorance and complacency is not true safety," she says. "We should give consumers a lot more credit for their intelligence. We can cope with a bit more honesty and offence.

Being offensive is not the offence here. Creating this spurious, cosy, unobjectionable middle ground in our advertising, which, ultimately, does us no favours, is." As Primmer contends, marketing can be hugely powerful in changing the world for the better – an admirable, inspiring ambition cited by an increasing number of marketers as their reason for working in the industry. But, with power comes responsibility. Are you wielding yours wisely? M