Media Forum: Was OAA wrong to be edgy?

Should outdoor's campaign have avoided controversy, Alasdair Reid asks.

Don't ever mess with Mumsnet. It may have started out as a rather warm environment in which parents could discuss parenting issues in an ambience that was as pink as it was powder blue. Now it seems to be a rather scary place, inhabited by political bruisers.

If Gordon Brown and his Labour Party fail to win the forthcoming General Election (and there are those who believe that this could indeed happen), historians will surely point to Biscuitgate as the point at which his fate was sealed.

Back in October, you will remember, Brown was publicly flayed within an inch of his political life by Mumsnet, when he apparently showed some indecision as to his personal choice of biscuit. A subsequent peace offering of a packet of chocolate chip cookies just about helped to repair the damage.

So someone at the Outdoor Advertising Association better break into the petty cash box sometime soon and invest in a packet, say, of Bourbons. Or those rather sumptuous chocolate Bath Olivers that come in a tubular tin.

Because, of course, the OAA is now in unhappy company, having upset Mumsnet with one of the creative executions in a generic outdoor campaign designed to illustrate the enduring power of outdoor advertising.

Mumsnet was not amused by the "career women make bad mothers" execution and the ad has been withdrawn. Other less controversial copy will now be to the fore in a continuing £1.25 million initiative called "Britain Thinks" created for the OAA by Beta, with outdoor inventory across bus-side advertising and 11,500 billboard and poster sites around the country.

Was the OAA's thinking fundamentally flawed, not just in the way it provoked this particular controversy but in a more general way too? Do media owners ever really gain anything when they run generic self-promotion campaigns using their own media channels?

Sue Unerman, the chief strategy officer at MediaCom, can see why the Mumsnet constituency was irked because she experienced a similar response. She says: "Yes, it did annoy me. The broad strategy is a good one and it has been done well in the past. But you can do that without being controversial in this way. I agree with the comment on Mumsnet that this doesn't show that outdoor advertising works, it shows that controversial advertising may provoke a response."

But Roy Jeans, the chief executive of IPM, argues that, whatever the merits of individual ads, the general principle of a generic marketing campaign is sound. But he admits he was disappointed that Mumsnet decided not to accept the "working mums" copy in the spirit that was intended.

He reasons: "Outdoor, in particular, is one area where self-promotion should work. Unlike other media, where you buy a product for a reason and you get advertising as part of the package, in outdoor you don't have the clutter of non-advertising content. So it's wellplaced to be able to sell itself, using its own channel. And its huge canvases are very attractive. So it has to be a good idea - the medium as a whole has signed up for this and we're all behind it."

Perhaps, Marc Mendoza, the chief executive of MPG, agrees. He notes that media owners consistently use their media to promote themselves as this is the most effective way to communicate with existing audiences and do it rather successfully too. But he adds: "It's different when a media owner puts out a shocking message to a mass audience to get a reaction, thereby supposedly proving that the medium works. In this case, the creative message, designed to provoke, seems crass and doesn't seem to have been thought through by the agency. Anyone can get a reaction by putting something daft on a mass-market medium. The trick is to do it in a way that engages."

Absolutely, Douglas McArthur, the managing consultant at Planning for Results, and formerly the boss of the Radio Advertising Bureau trade body, adds. He reveals that the RAB looked at mounting controversial stunt campaigns now and then - but always rejected the notion.

He concludes: "The thinking is that you come up with a powerful piece of communication, you do pre-test and post-test - and you find that lots of people noticed it. So you conclude, therefore, that the medium works. But the logic doesn't follow. You've not run a normal piece of communication, you've just gone out to shock people. And the problem is that most mainstream advertisers don't tend to want to shock people."

YES - Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer, MediaCom

"My immediate reaction was to wonder how many women worked on it. If they'd been really clever, they'd have said: 'Career men make bad fathers.' How much more thought-provoking would that have been?"

NO - Roy Jeans, chief executive, IPM

"The intention was to attract responses to the website and in that respect, it is achieving the right sort of cut-through. I was surprised at Mumsnet's response. I don't think it was reasonably warranted."

YES - Marc Mendoza, chief executive, MPG

"It's worrying when Australia shows more subtlety than the UK. Recent Australian work for Mad Men created a cookware brand with 50s copy belittling women. When people logged on to complain, they saw how ingenious it was."

YES - Douglas McArthur, managing consultant, Planning for Results

"The OAA may think it has shown that outdoor can benefit advertisers - but I don't think that follows. It has shown you can use outdoor to generate awareness and column inches. But so what? The question is - what has it done to your brand?"

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