CRAFT: THE CREATIVE ISSUE; Why is animated violence so acceptable in TV advertising?

Peperami, then Nik-Naks, brought cartoon violence to ads. Jim Davies reports

Peperami, then Nik-Naks, brought cartoon violence to ads. Jim Davies


Last year’s ‘Boombastic’ spot for Levi’s was something of a

breakthrough. Commercials animation had finally grown up - hell, it

could even be sexy. No longer consigned to daytime slots for breakfast

cereals or soft drinks, Bartle Bogle Hegarty recognised that adults are

turned on by animation too. This is reflected in the success of US

series such as Sky One’s the Simpsons, not forgetting home-grown fare

such as Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit trilogy.

Such creations work on several levels: the colours, movement and

slapstick appeal to children, while the verbal jokes, cultural

references - and the slapstick - pull in the adults.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that the UK advertising industry has

taken so long to cotton on to animation’s potential for selling to an

adult audience.

Styles and techniques are many and varied, ranging from Aardman’s

trademark Plasticine animation, to the classic cel animation of Oscar

Grillo and Hibbert Ralph, to a raft of increasingly sophisticated 3D

computer-generated work. Adult themes and issues can, and often are,

explored in non-commercial films, so there’s no reason this can’t

translate into the advertising arena.

Or is there? According to Independent Television Commission figures, two

out of the top five most offensive ads in 1995 were animated. Ammirati

Puris Lintas’s ‘bit of an animal’ campaign for Peperami came in at

number three with 73 complaints, while Lowe Howard-Spink’s pen-and-ink

30s comic-strip style campaign for Whitbread Flowers Ale eased into the

number five spot with 57. Since then, Ogilvy and Mather’s series of

surreal quickfire ten-second spots for Golden Wonder Nik-Naks - one of

which showed an animated construction worker blowing his head off as he

pushes a detonator button - quickly amassed 22 complaints.

‘Animation gives you creative licence to do things you wouldn’t be

allowed to otherwise,’ Damian Horner, the new-business director at

Mustoe Merriman, claims.

Dave Waters, joint creative director of Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters,

agrees, citing an ad that he art directed at GGT for Lurpak, in which an

animated butter man spreads himself on to a crumpet. ‘It’s a bit like a

suicide,’ he observes. ‘You wouldn’t have got away with it if he hadn’t

been an animated character.’

The problem is, there’s a temptation to push things that little bit too

far, which is when the advertising regulatory bodies start to get

twitchy, and the public start taking offence. A couple of years ago,

Mustoe Merriman was rapped over an animated commercial for a computer

game called ‘Rise of the Robots’ in which robots delivered threats such

as ‘I’ll send you to the doctor in a bag’. The Broadcast Advertising

Clearance Centre duly decreed it was to be screened after the 9pm


Just because animated commercials are one step further removed from

reality than live-action commercials, doesn’t automatically give them a

licence to run roughshod over guidelines.

But the issue isn’t clear-cut. Jerry Hibbert of the commercials

animation specialist, Hibbert Ralph, recalls an ad his company created

for Addis household goods featuring the MGM favourites Tom and Jerry a

few years ago. It was extremely violent, but because the audience was

familiar with the conventions of Tom and Jerry, it didn’t cause offence.

Hibbert defends the Flowers commercial on the grounds that it was ‘a

tongue-in-cheek beer campaign aimed at lads down the pub who would

appreciate that sort of humour’. The most extreme of the three ads

showed a dog trapped on a clifftop ledge. It had been pestering sheep

and driven them over the cliff. One of the two protagonists tries to

save it by removing his trousers and lifting the dog up with them. When

he realises that valuable beer money is falling out of his pockets, he

leaves the dog to fall. The dog is OK because it bounces off the pile of

dead sheep.

The careful retro styling of the Flowers commercial serves to distance

the viewer from the bad taste subject matter. Peperami’s more realistic

3D approach in ‘grater,’ on the other hand, does not. ‘It’s truly

grisly,’ Hibbert says. ‘But it gives the ad an edge.’

He is quick to add that the commercials are very popular at his son’s

school; however, parents of younger children have branded the grater

spot disturbing. ‘It left my five-year-old confused,’ says one producer

at a leading animation company. ‘He just couldn’t understand what had


Which is just why commercials animation for adults needs to be handled

with kid gloves; though naturally inclined to the medium, children may

easily be disoriented by the message.