Are offensive TV ads on the increase?

Is it political correctness gone mad or are ads really becoming more offensive, Caroline Lovell asks.

Snickers ad...controversial
Snickers ad...controversial

Stop the dehumanising stereotypes. Stop the jokey violence. There is no place in advertising for cruelty. Pull the campaign. Do it now. Then tell your agencies how to behave. Or else," Advertising Age's Bob Garfield warned in an open letter to Omnicom's president, John Wren.

This letter was posted to Wren after Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO launched a Snickers ad in the UK, which Garfield and the US gay rights lobby the Human Rights Campaign slammed as homophobic after viewing it on the internet. This led to Mars pulling the ad.

In it, Mr T shoots Snickers bars at a speed walker after shouting at him: "Speed walking. I pity you fool. You a disgrace to the man race. It's time to run like a real man."

Unfortunately for AMV, timing has not been on its side. Only in June, it hit another wall when Heinz withdrew an ad for its Deli Mayo after the Advertising Standards Authority received 210 complaints about its same-sex kiss. Although the ASA has pulled 19 ads this year for causing "serious or widespread offence against generally accepted moral, social or cultural standards, or public feeling", the difference with the aforementioned AMV ads is that the clients took the decision to pull them before regulators had the chance to adjudicate. It is a change which Christopher Graham, the director-general of the ASA, thinks agencies and clients should note, as more consumers campaign against ads before they even reach the regulators.

"I think the ad business needs to be a little more thoughtful and careful and recognise that we are living in a diverse society and you need to be a little sensitive to that. I don't think it has got anything to do with political correctness," he says.

Although Graham appreciates that an ad can touch a raw nerve and seem offensive because of events, such as a tsunami, that are difficult to anticipate, he believes agencies often focus too much on their target audience and forget that untargeted groups will also see the ads.

It is a point that Clearcast's head of policy and customer operations, Kristoffer Hammer, reiterates. For Hammer, the most difficult part of Clearcast's job is looking at whether an ad will cause an implied or unintended offence.

However, Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall, views both of the AMV ads as "pretty innocuous".

"When gay people are virtually invisible in advertising, people attach importance to one small ad. I'm sure that it was the same 30 years ago when black people were invisible," he says.

But Paul Silburn, the creative partner at Saatchi & Saatchi, thinks that perhaps recent events show that we are becoming more American, where a small minority, who protest more widely, are becoming increasingly powerful.

"It would be a shame if people went into panic mode and played everything safe. It's about freedom of speech really; I would hate it if we ended up watering down the things we do. It would be a sad day if we were terrified to take any risks; without taking risks the business won't progress," Silburn says.

Although agencies have the responsibility to draw the line and not cross it, clients also have a duty to be the guardian of their brand because they are the ones who ultimately sign the ads off. Silburn suggests that some clients may have become more wary of offending people, and in doing so, losing customers in the current economic downturn. However, in contrast, Mark Cadman, the chief executive of Euro RSCG London, expects to see more provocative and unconventional ads in the current financial climate as it leads to free media.

But Greg Nugent, the head of UK marketing at Eurostar, believes Heinz's and Mars' decisions to pull the ads has less to do with the credit crunch and more to do with a disconnection between marketing departments and the corporate heads at big multinational companies.

"This is not about clients losing their balls, it is a real illustration of why marketing is not driving strategy. It tends not to happen when there are strong healthy relationships between the corporation and the marketing department. It is systematic of big business, where marketing is left to do the ads, but is not thinking about the protection of the master brand," Nugent says. Whatever the reasons behind Heinz's and Mars' reactions to the complaints (both refused to comment), it does suggest that political correctness may have gone mad. Although Hammer thinks it is simply a coincidence, rather than a trend, that a few ads have been pulled, the PR advisor Max Clifford, the owner of Max Clifford Associates, firmly believes that political correctness in the UK has reached ridiculous proportions.

Ed Morris, the creative director at Lowe London, explains that, in adland, this has meant that creatives cannot use the cliched stereotypical characters, which littered ads in the past, such as nuns, Rastafarians or Hare Krishnas, or use the word "fat" without being inundated with letters of complaint.

"Sometimes the objective is to be offensive because advertising is all about grabbing attention. But there is a broader range of subtle sensitivities that you have to be aware of now. Great creative work always polarises; it is never universal. If you stand for something, you're going to make some enemies," Morris adds.

However, Cadman does not agree that we have become more politically correct or sensitive. Instead, he argues that the birth of the internet and easy access to media channels has given special interest groups a voice that they did not have in the past. Equally, the internet is seen as a double-edged sword, Silburn explains, as it is much harder to control its content and the movement of this content into untargeted markets. "On the one hand, you can reach millions of people and on the other hand you can offend the same amount of people with the same speed," he says.

One issue that the advertising industry and the regulators do agree on is that the regulation system is not failing. Hammer explains: "We already do a lot of work to minimise the offence caused to consumers. If we would have to go further, it could be detrimental to advertising as an industry. Compared with Europe, generally we already have much more detailed regulation; perhaps to a detail that sometimes feels unnecessary."

Graham argues that any other definition, which is laid out in the Committee of Advertising Practice and BCAP Codes, would "tie us up in knots". Instead, he says, the responsibility lies with the agency to think the issues through before any complaints arise at the ASA.

However, behind closed doors, some have speculated that perhaps AMV had thought the two ads through very carefully and that they were actually well-made PR stunts. If this was the case, their success is difficult to judge.

Clifford says: "The only defining answer is: Does it achieve its purpose? Do you sell more of your product because of it? That is what matters at the end of the day: the success, which is achieved by the controversy. It's a whole game of chess because often, by being controversial, you get the coverage that you require, but does it act in your favour or against?"

And that is a question that only Heinz and Mars will be able to answer in their boardrooms at the end of the financial year.