Ads take the bite out of crime

Since The Sopranos started airing on The Movie Network (TMN) in Canada and HBO in the U.S. five years ago, the mafia has enjoyed its time in the sun. The fourth season premiere of the mob family drama raked in the biggest audience TMN has ever had, beating out its highest-rated movie, Castaway, by 30%, says Richard Bartrem, TMN's director of marketing. The theme of crime - whether organized or not - has infiltrated the advertising consciousness as well.

Since The Sopranos started airing on The Movie Network (TMN) in Canada and HBO in the U.S. five years ago, the mafia has enjoyed its time in the sun. The fourth season premiere of the mob family drama raked in the biggest audience TMN has ever had, beating out its highest-rated movie, Castaway, by 30%, says Richard Bartrem, TMN’s director of marketing.

The theme of crime – whether organized or not – has infiltrated the advertising consciousness as well. Everyone from Coca-Cola to Claritin has gotten in on the action and MTV in the U.S. will debut the Chrysler-sponsored show, Fast Enuff, in December, which features young drivers who will race each other in Dodge Neons.

‘Advertisers are constantly trying to find ways to get attention – it’s part of an ever-noisier ad environment,’ says Alan Middleton, professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. ‘Agencies are pushing the envelope and being a bit risqué in sexual matters, criminal matters and social convention.’

Adds Jeff Spriet, president of branded entertainment company Chokolat in Toronto, ‘advertising does not dictate society, it reflects it.’ Spriet says that when a brand does not have an immediate association or history, advertisers may improvise by associating them with pop culture images such as TV shows or movies. ‘It’s not a conscious effort to do a mafioso-type ad – it’s what [advertisers'] subconscious is being filled with every day. I don’t think they’re saying, ‘we need to be edgy, so let’s do something illegal.”

Spriet says the theme of crime is most often used in advertising only when it’s a form that is not in the limelight, therefore it’s less likely to be deemed too controversial. For example, he says, it would be in poor taste to touch on gang violence in advertising right now, since it’s rampant in the U.S. ‘The mafia stuff isn’t something you come across every day.’

The ad campaign for season four of The Sopranos, which included outdoor, television and direct mail and was conceived by TMN’s agency, Taxi, in Toronto, has garnered its share of attention. TMN’s Bartrem says there was some controversy over a billboard ad that showed a body wrapped in a checked tablecloth, but that overall the campaign was a success in terms of communicating awareness for The Sopranos and increasing the number of subscribers. Bartrem notes too that it was important to convey that TMN exclusively owns the rights to new episodes of The Sopranos in Canada, since CTV has been showing seasons one and two.

In the age-old advertising tradition of borrowing equity from ‘the new hotness,’ other marketers are picking up on consumers’ current fascination with Tony and family in a spate of recent la cosa nostra-inspired campaigns. ‘[What we're seeing is] Sopranos-style mafia, not the real world,’ says Middleton. ‘The Sopranos has been such a huge success, people are directly trying to jump on the bandwagon.’

The mob and photocopiers may not at first glance seem to go hand in hand, but Brother International Corporation of Canada has paired the two themes together in its TV advertising campaign, conceived by MacPhee of Toronto, for the last year and a half. The ads feature mob guys Tony and Vito who ‘put the hit on inefficiency’ by ridding people of their ineffective office equipment in sometimes violent, yet humorous ways – one recent spot shows the guys dumping a photocopier into a river.

Dan Courville, marketing and public relations manager for Brother Canada, says to increase brand awareness for Brother’s products, they decided to move away from more serious campaigns of the past. ‘They’re mobsters in an overly classic way but they’re not really threatening to anybody,’ says Brian Collinson, chief creative officer of MacPhee. In fact, says Courville, the only complaint they received regarding using mob imagery in their ads was from environmentalists who were concerned about water pollution after a Brother photocopier was immersed in a river.

Courville says they had Metro Toronto police on hand to ensure they were not, in fact, doing anything illegal and he says no bodies of water were harmed in the process. ‘A reasonable person will understand that this is comedy and not promoting organized crime,’ says Courville.

Vanilla Coke’s use of the mafia theme takes a soft approach – no violence is really implied, with the exception of a joke-style headlock in the aisles of a library.

‘If Coke’s doing it, you know its mainstream,’ says Spriet. ‘We’ve seen so much mafia stuff lately, it’s become the flavour of the month.’ Spriet says the mafia theme has oversaturated the advertising world of late, to the point where he says it’s difficult to remember which product is advertised in a given spot. ‘Nothing is distinctive about it,’ he says.

But mafia-related crime isn’t the only illegal activity being represented in advertising. Brands like Claritin, which recently used a graffiti tag in a billboard ad for its allergy medication, likely confirm the urban art form no longer has the edginess it once had. ‘Graffiti tagging used to be an illegal activity, but if it’s played out a little bit, it becomes more accessible,’ says Spriet.

Nike Canada also got into the mix by incorporating graffiti tags into their advertising. The brand, repped by Toronto agency Cossette Media, recently won a gold Media Innovation Award for using a graffiti tag in an ad for its Presto brand which spills into the editorial content of a magazine. Presto’s logo is in fact a graffiti-inspired tag, and the graffiti theme was also carried over to the brand’s urban Kensington Market space, emblazoned on walls and outdoor garbage cans. But the emphasis with regard to Nike’s Presto and graffiti is not so much on getting people to illegally dirtify their neighbourhoods, but more to focus on the artistic side of the medium. The Presto brand, says Randy Weyersberg, director of marketing for Nike Canada, is about ‘people expressing themselves through movement, music and art.’

Middleton says brands can potentially go too far in utilizing crime as a marketing tool. He says ads such as one of the latest for Levi’s by U.K.-based Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which shows a woman attempting to hotwire and steal a car, ‘pushes at the edge and falls over it.’ Middleton says this type of ad may use impact as its communication, but in the end it doesn’t have much relevance to the brand. ‘There’s a difference between pushing at the edge and pushing people to do stupidly illegal or off-base things…. How far are we prepared to go to shock? Attention alone does not sell goods.’

Steal this ad (no, not rip it off, actually grab and run…)

Parasuco Jeans has a history with actual theft of its product. As reported previously in Strategy, there was a rash of thefts of the sought-after Parasuco jeans brand in the U.S. in 1999, so much so that the so-called ‘Parasuco Bandits’ were featured on an episode of America’s Most Wanted. Just recently, too, ads for the brand were stolen in various parts of the country.

Jeff Spriet, former marketing director of Nike Canada, says he experienced the same phenomenon with Nike’s ads and the company saw the thefts as a good thing for the brand. Spriet says Nike deliberately produced more ad output in anticipation that the outdoor creative would be stolen, particularly when Vince Carter appeared in the ads.

‘We viewed it as a good problem to have because it shows that brand is desirable,’ says Spriet. ‘Your ad up on someone’s wall – it doesn’t get any better than that.’