The latest Pepe jeans commercial - guns, bloody noses, a teenager
spinning in a washing machine, all filmed in glorious ‘wobblycam’ - has
There is a theory that the client may not be displeased. The theory is
that getting banned can only increase street cred, and as increasing
street cred is the raison d’etre of the ad, getting banned may be no bad
Nor would this be the first client to welcome the opprobrium of the
authorities. There is quite a fashion for setting out, Benetton style,
to be as controversial as possible.
OK, so such an exercise becomes less of an ad and more of a cynical PR
stunt. Who cares, as long as it does the job?
On one level, certainly not me. Selling (in the broad sense) is a clear
responsibility for advertising people. If an ad that shocks can generate
more free media interest than a conventional paid-for schedule, how can
it be wrong?
Here’s how: we have a responsibility other than selling and, in my view,
it is a greater one. It is, pious as it may sound, a moral
responsibility. Ask yourself this: do you take the Benetton line that
more or less anything goes? Or do you, like me, believe that, somewhere,
there is a line that should be drawn?
Because I didn’t want to judge the Pepe commercial out of context, I
asked the agency if I could see the rest of the campaign. The print ads
take the form of pseudo notice boards with various contentious items to
the fore, nipple piercing et al. No big deal there, but when it comes to
uncritical references to mind-altering drugs, which in one case it
clearly does, I have a concern. Not that I think that they are
necessarily always a bad thing, but that doesn’t make them an
appropriate subject for advertising to young teenagers. Worse still, in
another ad they reprint an article with the headline: ‘Teenager filmed
his own death.’
I think I understand the strategy: to have a go at Levi’s, Pepe wants to
be nearer the edge. So it tries to say to its market, we understand
what it’s like to be you. But in uncritically showing these extreme
aspects of teenage life, aren’t they implicitly endorsing them, and
isn’t that irresponsible?
Anyway, all this has given me an idea for a new Pepe press ad. They’ve
covered teenage alcoholism, drug-taking and suicide, so what about ram-
raiding? And just to prove that they really don’t believe that showing
any kind of dodgy behaviour in advertising leads to people copying it -
which I’m sure is what they’ll say - let’s make it a story about ram-
raiding a warehouse full of Pepe jeans.
Richard Phillips is the director at R.J. Phillips and Co