Close-Up: Live issue - Unforeseen events put kibosh on ads

Circumstances beyond their control can easily affect advertisers' content, Kate Nettleton writes.

While thousands were recovering from the floods last week, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO also found itself in deep waters over its latest Walkers ad. The agency was forced to pull the campaign after it was decided that those who were still knee-deep in rainwater could fail to see the funny side of Gary Lineker bemoaning the unpredictable British weather.

This is by no means unfamiliar territory for adland. Many things - from erratic weather, to acts of terrorism, to a celebrity frontman caught with his pants down - have caused ads to be pulled. And no matter how good the ad is, when circumstances beyond an agency's control turns the ad into a creative faux pas, there's little it can do to halt the spot's journey to the great advertising vault in the sky.

Tragic circumstances are the most common catalyst for rolling out the advertising guillotine. Following Princess Diana's fatal car crash in 1997, swathes of ads were judged unsuitable for air, especially those for car and alcohol brands. Given that the crash took place in a Mercedes-Benz, its ads were first to face the firing squad.

Partners BDDH's first work for Mercedes-Benz had launched the month before. The agency was forced to pull the advertising as soon as news of the tragedy broke.

Nigel Long, who was the chief executive of BDDH at the time, recalls: "I was in total shock when I heard the news, so I didn't make the connection to the campaign we were running for Mercedes at the time. I then got a call from my creative partner asking if we should pull the ad, and I suddenly realised and said 'of course'."

The account team was called into the office on a Saturday morning and frantic calls were made to both the client and the media agency. "It wasn't that Mercedes was at fault, it was really about respecting the sensitivity of the situation," Long says. "As the day wore on and the sentiment built, we realised we were doing the right thing and we weren't over-reacting."

Other ads - such as a Nissan Almera spot featuring a car chase, a Green Flag ad including an accident scene and a Vauxhall Vectra campaign featuring a corpse in the back of a car - were also halted.

However, those on the other side of the Pond weren't quick enough to pull one WeightWatchers ad, created by Lowe & Partners, that featured the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, remarking that dieting is "harder than outrunning the paparazzi". The ads were aired on US cable stations just hours after Princess Diana was killed.

The horrific events of 9/11 also had ramifications for adland, especially for those agencies with airlines on their client list. Among the airlines scrambling to pull their ads in the wake of the tragedy was British Airways, which made £15 million cuts to its adspend.

Tim Duffy, the then managing director at BA's above-the-line agency M&C Saatchi, explains: "An aircraft had been used as a weapon and it was all pretty shocking. We got together with the client the day after and made the decision then. There was a unanimous agreement that it would be insensitive to run the ads."

Calamity has also struck the drinks sector in recent years, with two spectacular mishaps leading to campaigns being pulled. As well as the inevitable axing of Perrier's ads following the 1990 benzene contamination scandal, Coca- Cola's problematic launch of its bottled water range Dasani endured a similar fate in 2004.

Not only did Coke's "pure" water face huge criticism in the press for being sourced from mains tap water in Sidcup, it transpired that the water was also contaminated with the carcinogenic chemical bromate. As a result, Lowe's TV campaign for Dasani was pulled before it even made it to air. However, this was not the only reason to can the ad - as the launch coincided with the catastrophic tsunami in December 2004, the TV spot which featured a huge tidal wave was deemed to be a little close to the bone.

Safeguarding against disastrous events, that suddenly change the meaning of an agency's creative product, is impossible. However, when a client or agency decides to make steps into the treacherous world of celebrity endorsement, they take a calculated risk that the doors to their skeleton-filled cupboards are going to stay firmly shut.

The most memorable celebrity disaster came when Michael Jackson's penchant for spending time with young boys hit the headlines. Pepsi, which had just signed a multimillion-pound contract with the pop star, dropped him and pulled the ads faster than you could have said "Neverland".

You'd think UK clients would learn their lesson from their American counterparts, but they seem to have a knack for hiring philandering celebrities. Using Glenn Hoddle and his family to portray the image of harmonious family life backfired on Shredded Wheat in the 90s, when the England football manager decided to divorce his wife of 18 years for another woman.

Then, just last year, Nintendo decided to use Chris Tarrant and his wife in a series of ads created by Leo Burnett for its Brain Training software on the Nintendo DS. However, when it transpired that those brain-training exercises hadn't been working and Tarrant had somehow forgotten to inform his wife he was having an affair, the campaign was called to a halt.

Celebrity bad behaviour hit the tabloids again later that year when Jade Goody's racist comments towards Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother forced Carphone Warehouse to pull its sponsorship of the doomed social experiment.

It's not always celebrity misdemeanour that causes the problem, though. Around 15 years ago, Ogilvy & Mather ran a Four Roses Bourbon ad featuring the famous deceased jazz trumpeter Bunny Berigan. The agency clearly had not done its research, and after an industry expert rightly pointed out that Berigan's death was caused by cirrhosis of the liver, the agency was quick to pull the print campaign.

The agency courted controversy again in 1996, when it produced a Guinness ad that featured what the tabloids deemed a "gay kiss". The ad, which in fact ended with an innocuous peck on the cheek, was pulled by Guinness, which was so desperate that the ad should never see the light of day, it sought an injunction against its release.

Patrick Collister, who was the executive creative director at Ogilvy at the time, recalls: "It was just a group of people misunderstanding what the ad really was. The idea was to challenge people and come up with an ad that was both provocative and relevant. There was enormous disappointment - the creative team were convinced it would get a D&AD; I even had a note from the chairman praising it. Unfortunately, a week later, I got another asking what I was doing to the Guinness brand."