Context is everything

It almost goes without saying - creative that stands out will often cause a controversy. In the words of Alan Middleton, an assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University, 'if it doesn't make your spine tingle a bit, it's not good advertising.'

It almost goes without saying – creative that stands out will often cause a controversy. In the words of Alan Middleton, an assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University, ‘if it doesn’t make your spine tingle a bit, it’s not good advertising.’

So it comes as no surprise that many in the ad biz were upset when media conglomerate Rogers not only pulled a salacious ad from Marketing magazine, but also issued a public apology in its daily e-mail. Marketing publisher Cam Gardner was fired just days after the publication hit the streets.

There has been much press about the debate surrounding the creative for the Marketing Awards, created by Toronto agency Taxi Advertising & Design, with many agency heads expressing concern over Rogers’ actions. Their dismay is not unfounded. After all, if the advertisement for a creative competition is going to get censored, what sort of example does that set for an industry that has traditionally rewarded those who have pushed the boundaries?

I, for one, am still scratching my head about Rogers’ reaction in the first place, particularly since the ad is tame compared to some others out there. True, examples of inflammatory ads in Canada are few and far between, probably due to clients’ uneasiness about employing racy images in the first place. But take Mojo Radio’s billboard creative. It features voluptuous, lingerie-clad women suggestively holding phallic-shaped objects like drills and hot dogs, in an attempt to connect with its macho male target.

And while we as Canadians may balk when we see a hint of cleavage, regulatory councils in Europe or South America wouldn’t give the Marketing ad a second glance. It may suggest a sexual act that is illegal in some Bible-thumping states, but there isn’t anything sexist about the work. In fact, the folks at Rogers only need watch one episode of Sex and The City to recognize that the creative is as insightful as it is humorous: women are sometimes hard to please in bed.

On the other hand, if you want to see distasteful, pick up a copy of Vogue, because the fashion houses push limits further than an unruly teen with strict parents. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that, even in France, where pedestrians are bombarded with hard-core porn mags on street corners, authorities are starting to clamp down on what they have dubbed ‘porno-chic’ advertising, particularly in the fashion industry.

The country’s Truth in Advertising Bureau has singled out a few offenders, such as Emanuel Ungaro, which once actually depicted a woman as sex slave to a dog, or French clothing manufacturer La City, which portrayed a scantily clad model on her hands and knees next to a sheep, with the words, ‘I’d like a sweater.’ Italy’s ad bureau also recently banned creative for a Cuban beer called Tinima, starring a model kneeling in a black bikini with a bottle of the brew between her legs. The tagline is: ‘Have yourself a Cuban.’

I find these examples cross the line, but a woman bored in bed? I suspect that the conservative executives at Rogers based their decision on their own biases rather than considering the target audience. Had the ad run in the Globe and Mail, the response may have been warranted, since the Globe is aimed at readers of their own stripe. But the image ran in Marketing, far from the eyes of grandparents or children. It doesn’t appear that the powers that be contemplated either the values of the target or the medium used. And one would think that since Taxi is a member of the audience, it would be a reliable judge of whether the advertisement was appropriate in the first place.

But it isn’t just over-arching media- or self-censorship that is worrisome these days, as more and more advertisers are flexing their muscles where they haven’t tread before: in the realm of television programming. Advertiser influence is on the rise (see Making the Brand a TV Star, p. 1), with some marketers taking product placement to new levels, like ‘product integration’ and ‘show ownership,’ ultimately giving them more power.

Like most categories, the TV industry is struggling in today’s economy, which has made it more vulnerable to the whims of marketers. For instance, CBS recently decided not to rebroadcast a sensitive episode of Family Law, about a child-custody battle in which the mom owns a handgun, because Procter & Gamble threatened to cancel its ads. P&G also refused to buy into the original broadcast last March, but this time around, CBS was unable to find replacements.

As the line between editorial and advertising continues to blur, constraints implicit in the shifting balance of power will probably continue. Unfortunately, in the quest for control, advertisers can lose sight of the consumer perspective, as well as context.

Lisa D’Innocenzo, News Editor