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The Fine Line Between Edgy And Offensive Advertising

Posted on July 30, 2002 and read 14,983 times

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Distinguishing between the two should be a relatively easy task. But more often than not, determining the difference between what’s cutting edge and what’s utterly offensive is a hard call to make. According to John Adams, chairperson of advertising at the International Academy of Design, “It’s all a matter of perspective. What people find offensive largely depends on their background.” Where they’ve grown up, their morals, and their values all play a role in determining what they deem acceptable, and what they find offensive. So I ask you, in a world where morals and values differ so drastically from person to person, how can we be sure that our ads don’t offend?

That’s where Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) steps in. They’re the police force of the ad world. They flash their Code of Ethics and rid the world of offensive advertising and derogatory headlines. Offenders have the chance to defend themselves against those who have complained. Yes, they have their day in court – advertising court that is. The complaint process is much like fighting a parking ticket. Once a complaint has been issued, the case is reviewed and the advertiser is notified. They state their case for the council, who deliberate until a verdict is reached. If found ‘guilty’, the advertiser is asked to pull their ad. But just like real court, you can appeal. I can see it now. Thursday nights on Fox: ‘Consumer Court.’ Judge Judy’s sister Trudy presides. “Your honour, we didn’t mean to imply….” “Order, Order!”

While the ASC does its best to regulate Canada’s advertising industry, many complain it’s preventing the industry from moving forward. After all, it’s likely that over 50% of our ads are going to offend somebody somewhere.

According to the ASC Consumer Complaint Log for 2001, many people complained that they were offended by “edgy advertising” that “pushed the boundaries of mainstream taste.” Many consumers referenced September 11th in their complaints, and expressed the desire to see a more peaceful society reflected in advertising. But if we catered to the most sensitive consumers we’d be left with ads filled with bunny rabbits and rainbows. So, should one or two complaints be enough to warrant pulling an ad? Marilyn Weisblott, Creative Director at QPath Inc. explains that a single complaint represents 1000 complaints from people who were also offended but didn’t complain.

Nonetheless, I would imagine that the idea behind the ASC council would be to prevent complaints from ‘overly sensitive’ consumers from determining the fate of our ads. That having been said, let’s take a look at this National TV spot for Ford Motor Company. In the ad, a woman shoves an unsuspecting male store clerk into the back of her car and drives away. The ad, which was meant to highlight the cars features (a roomy trunk), received 9 complaints. (According to Marilyn’s estimation, that’s really 9000). Viewers complained that the ad’s “depiction of an abduction scenario showed indifference to unlawful behaviour.” The council concluded that the scenario appeared to exploit and condone violence. Now here’s the kicker. If the ad was SO offensive, perhaps someone could explain why the exact same ad was shown in Quebec in both French and English, but wasn’t pulled there.

My guess: Nobody complained there. It makes no sense at all. How does the exact same ad condone violence here but not in Quebec?

While it’s encouraging to know that in the ad world, one voice can make a difference, it’s incredibly frustrating that a single objection is all it takes to pull an ad that we, as creatives, have worked so hard on. If it only takes one or two complaints to pull an ad, do we really stand a chance? If people’s standards differ so drastically, maybe we are better off backing up and turning that ‘fine line’ into giant gap. Not so says Marilyn Weisblott. “Absolutely, we must continue to push the envelope, otherwise ads get boring and overdone.”

My opinion: lighten up. While I don’t agree with an ‘anything goes’ policy, I do think that shocking is good. No, I don’t want to be offended while flipping through a magazine or watching TV, but ads have to be taken with a grain of salt. Ads with an edge are what we need to do if we want to capture the consumer’s attention. But let’s not be shocking for the sake of being shocking. Patrick Collister, the executive creative director of EHS Brann London sums it up perfectly: “You can come to a party with your dick hanging out. Everyone will remember you, but will they invite you again?”

What’s the solution? If the ASC didn’t exist, advertiser’s could run wild. Some don’t know where to draw the line and most can’t agree where it should have been drawn in the first place. The ASC acts as the much needed middle man between advertisers and consumers. It balances the outrageous with the mundane. And it works well–as long as people don’t abuse the system. Don’t complain because you can. After all, we can’t press forward if we’re constantly being held back.

It is quite possible that some of you don’t agree with my point of view. You might even be offended. Try to keep an open mind. Either way, I have no complaint process. So the article stays. Like it or not.


Pamela Fogul
Content Editor
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