Ad controversy raises concerns about pushing boundaries

The fallout over a racy ad that ran in a recent issue of Marketing magazine is the latest incident to elevate concerns about the risks involved when advertisers push the envelope.

The fallout over a racy ad that ran in a recent issue of Marketing magazine is the latest incident to elevate concerns about the risks involved when advertisers push the envelope.

The problem with sexy advertising is that Canadians can be prudish, and companies are too quick to react to complaints, insists Tony Miller CD at Toronto agency Sharpe Blackmore Euro RSCG. ‘We still cave in to the vocal minority whenever something remotely controversial or titillating comes along. It only takes a few people to get an ad pulled. As a result, there’s a tendency to shave off the edges and make everything beige.’

This conflicts with the goals of the industry, as agencies are encouraged and expected to push boundaries to break through clutter. ‘If you bore people to death, it’s difficult to get the brand message across,’ says Andy Macaulay, founding partner of Toronto agency Zig. ‘But you want to make sure that any controversy you create works for the client, not against them. It all depends whether it’s appropriate for the brand.’

Created by Toronto agency Taxi Advertising & Design, the tongue-in-cheek ad that promotes Marketing’s creative awards depicts a woman lying in bed with a bored expression on her face. A figure is beneath the sheets, clearly implying that someone is performing a sexual act on her. Beside her head, is the word ‘Merit,’ suggesting that lackluster advertising won’t warrant top honours at the competition.

Days after the magazine hit the streets, Marketing publisher Cameron Gardner, was relieved of his duties. Despite the fact that he is currently pursuing a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against parent company Rogers Publishing Group, Harvey Botting, SVP of the Business Information Group at Rogers, won’t say whether Gardner’s departure was precipitated by the ad. He did, however, apologize to the industry, calling the image ‘offensive and an embarrassment’ to the company.

For his part, Paul Lavoie, president and CD of Taxi, believes Gardner’s dismissal is indeed related to the advertisement, and Lavoie has stepped down as chairman of the Marketing Awards as a result. He also plans to boycott the creative competition and suggests other agencies may follow suit.

Lavoie says it was a challenge to produce work that inspired agencies to enter the contest. ‘We are talking to an audience that is jaded. They see a lot of ads every day, so we wanted something they would really notice.’ On the ad being yanked, Lavoie says: ‘I don’t think it’s right. There should be more of a debate about censorship.’

This isn’t the only suggestive ad that has been pulled in recent months. This summer a transit campaign for the Canadian Men’s Clinic (CMC) was banned from the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), because it featured a bare-chested woman with the slogan, ‘When you see this you feel: a: nothing; b: nothing; c: nothing; d: still damn nothing.’ Last winter, transit creative for Diesel Jeans, exposing part of a man’s behind, was removed from Burlington, Ont., while a similar effort from Parasuco, featuring a hint of a woman’s buttocks, was banned from the TTC.

But Tuti Do, marketing and communications director at Montreal-based Parasuco, says the company’s target market of hip, stylish trendsetters wouldn’t have been offended. ‘Our jeans are certainly not for wallflowers,’ she explains. ‘Every season we strive to have campaigns that are captivating, memorable and reflective of our brand – if this translates into pushing the envelope, so be it.’

Likewise, the Marketing ad was effective both because it successfully reinforced the message, (that the awards are the result of tough judging), and because it was contained in a niche publication, says Miller. ‘They aren’t advertising in an academic journal on medieval jurisprudence,’ he says. ‘Context is important to remember. The Diesel ads ran in a mass medium. Kids see them. Infants see them. Impressionable grandmothers see them. But Marketing magazine? It’s hardly bedtime reading for the under-10 crowd.’

Alan Middleton, an assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, agrees that the audience is a factor in determining whether such an ad is appropriate.

The key, he says, is to ensure the creative falls within the values of the target group, so that they will be able to accept it. ‘If you spend time with the target, you live with them, you engage in research about them, then you begin to get a feeling of what the culture of that community is, and there’s no substitute for that.’

Provocative images fail, he adds, when they have absolutely no connection to the product or service being sold. Portraying a semi-clad woman to sell coffee tables is an example. ‘Consumers see that for what it is – it’s valueless, it’s cheap. It may get a titter or a laugh, but it does absolutely nothing for the brand,’ he says, adding that while Taxi’s ad isn’t insulting or sexist, it is in poor taste in his opinion. ‘While it gets its message across, it does so in a ‘cheap laughs’ way … to the possible detriment of the brand image.’

But this is a secondary issue for many creative types who believe Rogers’ response doesn’t bode well for the Canadian ad industry as a whole. ‘If we can’t do a bit of tongue-in-cheek stuff to a whole bunch of advertisers, I don’t know who you can do it for,’ says Marc Stoiber VP and executive CD at Grey Worldwide’s Toronto office. ‘If we censor ourselves within our community, I think that there’s not a lot of hope for us competing on a world stage with the likes of Brazil and France.’

With files from Lucy Saddleton.