CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/IMAGES THAT MAY SHOCK - Courting the right type of advertising controversy. Finding the divide between provocative and offensive is tricky

"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

client relationships.

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of another hastily withdrawn spot - an Allied Dunbar ad featuring an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

in advertising.

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.