Lighten up, people

Well, it's funny. My most recent column in this space, about the Hall's golf course commercial, began with these words: 'It's a pretty good sign your ads are working when people start talking about them.'
A couple of days after I wrote that, a close associate walked into a meeting, threw down a copy of Marketing and expressed a very strong opinion about an ad inside.

Well, it’s funny. My most recent column in this space, about the Hall’s golf course commercial, began with these words: ‘It’s a pretty good sign your ads are working when people start talking about them.’

A couple of days after I wrote that, a close associate walked into a meeting, threw down a copy of Marketing and expressed a very strong opinion about an ad inside.

I escaped to the golf course and we hadn’t reached the first green when an old buddy started talking about the same ad. A day or two later, at a nice social lunch, the subject of the ad arrived before the wine did.

So by my newly expressed criterion, this must be a real good ad. People are talking about it a lot.

Uh, no. Two of my three respected friends hated it, a SVP for the client company published a black-bordered mourning-notice-cum-apology for it and the 26-year employee who approved it got sacked. I guess that’s not precisely what I’d define as ‘The ad is working.’

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for a month, I am of course talking about the Marketing Awards ad, delicately described by the Globe and Mail as ‘sexually suggestive’.

The ad shows a woman in bed, some apparent activity by an unseen collaborator going on under the sheets, and the woman jadedly thinking, ‘MERIT’ (meaning an award, sort of an ‘E for Effort’, which nonetheless falls short of gold, silver or bronze.) The point is, she is a ‘tough judge’, y’see, a lot like the Marketing Awards judges.

Yessirree-bob, the ad clearly did one of the following things wrong, and somebody has to be canned for it! See if you can guess which one:

It borrowed interest and stretched real hard for relevance.

It tried to make light of a really serious subject. (Awards judging, of course, not sex.)

It implied cunnilingus.

Okay, everybody, show of hands, who votes for a? And for b? Oh gosh, I guess people think the ad is dirty.

The CEO of Rogers Publishing seems to think so. Quoted in the Globe, he said the ad was ‘demeaning to women and it was outside the boundaries of…our ethical standards.’

I won’t even bother with the argument about where Rogers’ boundaries are on cable channels and when they used to control hotel-room TV. I want to go right to that ‘demeaning to women’ crap. Let’s look at the ad.

The woman certainly appears to be of the age of consent, and there is nothing to indicate that she isn’t consenting, that she has been forced into this awful fate by that evil dude down there. In fact, to cite the Globe once more, she is ‘bored-looking’.

And that is, indeed, the whole point of the ad. This woman is not being exploited. This woman is so experienced at the act suggested (not shown, suggested) that she bloody well qualifies as a judge!!! (You don’t nominate advertising virgins to the Marketing panel!) She is so thoroughly knowledgeable and comfortable in this position that she can be thinking, in effect, ‘Oh, what the hell, give him a six.’

This ad, for all its real or imagined faults, is not demeaning to women. Knee-jerk Victorian comments about ‘demeaning to women’ when things get a little racy…that is demeaning to women.

But is the ad offensive? Well, it is sexy, and North America has trouble with that. Somebody once said that in Hollywood, you can show a woman’s breast being hacked off, but not being nuzzled. Obviously it’s offensive to a very important audience: those who held the Marketing publisher’s job in their hands. And there’s no question that it’s close to ‘the line,’ whatever ‘the line’ is; in the Globe, John Lee of Holmes & Lee says it absolutely crosses it.

It’s true, there’s got to be a line for advertising creative. ‘Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre’ remains a pretty good comment on the subject.

But dammit, if we advertising people can’t push the edge of that line in our own publications, to our own supposedly adult audiences, where can we do it? It’s not so much a question of censorship, it’s providing room to experiment. Our trade press should be our own little research & development lab, where you try the dangerous stuff and maybe once in a while it explodes!

You don’t hire a great research chemist and hand him a white coat with an attached harness. And you sure as hell don’t fire the lab manager when something goes boom.

I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. Open letter to the Canadian ad business … LIGHTEN UP!

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.