Uber edgy ads could refresh business – if they actually ran

Everyone knows it's out there, but nobody likes to talk about it. Festering at the back of the creative director's bottom drawer are the tapes and notes from all those ads that were killed off before they even left the office. Either because the client rejected them or for some other logistical reason, the hours of sweat and labour produced nothing more than drawer filler. But are we missing out on some of the best creative ideas as a result?

Everyone knows it’s out there, but nobody likes to talk about it. Festering at the back of the creative director’s bottom drawer are the tapes and notes from all those ads that were killed off before they even left the office. Either because the client rejected them or for some other logistical reason, the hours of sweat and labour produced nothing more than drawer filler. But are we missing out on some of the best creative ideas as a result?

Canadians have long been known for playing it safe when it comes to advertising. Rather than going for the racy, controversial campaign, which may well be rejected by the conservative client, many cautious advertisers stick to the tried and true – what some may call boring – approach.

And when it comes to sharing those rejected ads, few agencies are bold enough to step forward. ‘It’s that dirty subject that nobody wants to talk about,’ says Robin Heisey, creative director at FCB Toronto. ‘Everybody knows (rejected ads) are out there, rotting away, but there’s a conspiracy of silence in this industry.

‘Often ads are killed for budgetary reasons or a difference of opinion on the spirit of a brand. (Talking about those ads) impugns the judgment of your client because you’re saying they didn’t recognize how great your work was,’ he explains.

The repercussions can be severe, but some agencies still believe that pushing the envelope is worth the risk if, for nothing else, the sake of advertising.

One ad that was never approved for general use, but has just started to do the rounds via e-mail, is a viral campaign created by Toronto shop Grey Worldwide to promote Toronto Fashion Week. It is based on the same theme as Grey’s poster campaign which used the tagline ‘Cool fashion from a cold country’ together with images including chapped lips and a dripping nose to position Canada against the fashion capitals of the world.

The spot in question, ‘Nipple’ features the side-profile of a naked woman’s torso, and simply shows her nipple becoming gradually more erect, to symbolize Canada’s cold climate.

‘Toronto Fashion Week wanted to establish Canada as a fashion center up there with Milan and New York,’ says Marc Stoiber, VP ECD at Grey. ‘Canada doesn’t stand for anything except its cold climate so we decided to exploit that.

‘Then we decided to go a little bit further with a viral ad. If you want to do something on the Internet you have to go far or you can forget about it. You won’t get noticed unless you do something totally outrageous.’

According to Stoiber the client liked the ad, but feared that the event’s corporate sponsors would be less than amused.

‘It’s a real shame we didn’t have the chance to run it,’ says Stoiber. ‘Canadians are often too conservative when it comes to advertising, and all that does is perpetuate the idea of Canada as boring, dull and lifeless. In Italy or France they wouldn’t bat an eyelid at an ad like this.’

Another racy ad that never made it to our screens was created by Rethink’s creative partner, Ian Grais, during his time at Palmer Jarvis DDB’s Vancouver office. Created in 1998 for the Beatrice-owned drink product Shake A Shake, the spot features a man pushing a lawn mower up and down his lawn. His wife, trying to attract his attention from the kitchen window, uses a downward hand gesture to symbolize the shaking of a Shake A Shake bottle while mouthing the words: ‘Do you want one?’ Mistaking the gesture for something else, the eager man switches off the mower and races inside to be presented with nothing more than a drink.

According to Grais, the spot had been all set to run but was blocked by Parmalat, the Italian dairy that bought out the Beatrice brand at that time.

‘The ad is very risqué but it was a big disappointment to us that it never ran,’ says Grais. ‘I think it is always great to see provocative work. It’s refreshing to see something that’s totally out there and breaks a few rules. I think we need rules to be broken, so that advertising doesn’t fall into a formula.’ After Parmalat took over the reins at Shake A Shake, no further TV advertising took place.

Stoiber agrees that breaking away from moral taboos is essential. ‘By and large, if you know the brand character and you keep it relevant, you can push the envelope in a lot of ads,’ he says.

According to Heisey, it is a lack of understanding of a brand that sometimes leads to ads being turned away. ‘The agency is not always right any more than the client is always right,’ he says. ‘If both the agency and brand group understand the ads then you don’t get a lot of rejected ads. It’s that perfect understanding that everybody aims for, and when you achieve it it’s very valuable.’

The subject is very close to the heart of Lenn Grabiner, founding partner at Grabiner/Hall, a Los Angeles-based agency. ‘That is the nature of our business. We always push the envelope,’ he says. ‘Political correctness has homogenized most of what advertisers do now because they are so afraid of offending somebody.’

Early last year, Grabiner/Hall created a print ad for Auto-ID Systems, a subsidiary of hardware solutions company Vertex Interactive. Intended for a trade publication, it aimed to push the company’s online availability and ease of use. It features a photo of a teenage couple from the ’70s on their way to a prom. The young man has his arm draped around his partner, while the headline states: ‘Easier than your high school prom date.’

Grabiner says the ad made it through a couple of layers of approval before finally being blocked by senior management who feared it may cause offence. ‘It was an attempt to use tongue-in-cheek humour to get the point across,’ he says. ‘I feel it was a foolish decision not to run it because it wouldn’t have hurt the integrity of the company and it would have driven traffic to their Web site. When you’re selling a commodity, you have to do something to grab people’s attention.’ In the end a much tamer ad was chosen.

Some ads may be highly regarded by the client, but for financial or logistical reasons they are forced to turn down a number of options before choosing the winning formula.

This was the case with a campaign produced in 2001 by Calgary agency, Push, for Australian washroom advertising company Peek Media.

Four print ads were produced to promote the importance of washroom advertising to media buyers, with the tagline: ‘Do people look at bathroom advertisements? Consider their alternatives.’ Following scripts then draw attention to such pleasures as: ‘The used toilet paper that didn’t make it into the bowl,’ and ‘The lovely scattered piles of pubic hair.’

Andy Shortt, creative partner at Push says: ‘We were thinking of taking photos of gross things in washrooms but [the client] thought that was overly edgy, so we ended up putting it into the script which made it more palatable for them.’

However, a tight budget meant that these ads were rejected in favour of Push’s photographic options set in washrooms, one of which features a man reading a washroom ad. He is so absorbed by the ad that he loses control of his aim.

Pushing the client to the limit is a strategy adopted by many agencies. ‘A lot of creative directors believe in suggesting something totally outrageous (to the client) in the hope of eventually burning them down to get some fairly edgy creative through the door,’ says Shortt. However, he adds that this is not a policy at Push. ‘We involve the client in the whole creative process so hopefully we get more risky stuff approved that way,’ he says.

Shortt believes that Canadian advertising often suffers from a lack of reality by not taking sufficient risks. ‘The advertising (in Canada) tends to be more conservative than the media or medium that it’s in,’ he says, ‘You see content on TV shows and in newspapers and magazines that’s much more edgy than the advertising that appears in it. That’s why people are so cynical about advertising, because it doesn’t reflect the society that we live in.’

Grabiner sums up his sentiment: ‘The world is a little too sensitive and has lost its sense of humour.’