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From Politics to Poop Jokes: The Fine Line Between Shock and Awe.

By: Harry

Controversy definitely gets your attention in advertising. But that attention can expose you to a whole lot of hate. Like the stir this phallus-shaped food truck logo is creating in Britain.

Occasionally, agencies create controversy because it’s in keeping with their brand to spark discussion. Take, for example, our campaign for Roosevelt University. The client encourages students to candidly express their views. Each ad we created was inspired by a topical social issue, inviting those who saw it to speak their minds.


From the feedback we received, these ads got people to stop, stare and, best of all, talk.

When coming up with that campaign we ran into the ever-popular speed bump, The Creative Dilemma. It’s that fine line between advertising as a socially aware creative space and advertising as a blatantly controversial shot, meant to be heard around the world. Some agencies are all for stepping into the firing zone and unleashing work that is guaranteed to offend some or many. Others hide their tails between their legs at the mere hint of offending. A lot of the issue with offense, however, may simply come down to deftness and target audience priorities.

Kmart’s “I shipped my pants” spot relies on arguably taboo tactics (scatological humor and obscene language). Despite its share of detractors, the spot has 30 million hits of YouTube love. But a Kmart billboard with an image of a khaki-clad ass, a hand holding a roll of toilet paper, and the headline “Online deals so great, you’ll ship your pants!” probably would make more people cringe or call their congressperson. So maybe some topics (sex, pooping) aren’t really off-limits for marketing purposes so much as their sensitive nature requires extra deft, tongue-in-cheek handling in order to be “okay.”

And what about ads intentionally designed to alienate? In this recent Cadillac spot, a tanned actor speaks about the difference between Americans and Europeans, implying Americans are willing to work harder. Cadillac’s marketers say the ad is meant to spark controversy, even if alienates some. Ballsy move? Sure. But if the people you alienate are the kinds who would probably never purchase a Cadillac anyway, perhaps alienating them is a non-issue, so long as your message makes your target do a big “woot.”

Same goes for the Honeymaid graham cracker “Wholesome” spot featuring two gay dads tending their newborn. Or American Apparel’s overtly sexual imagery.

Each of these brands is appealing strongly to some consumers at the expense of alienating others. Is that a savvy choice? A foolhardy one? An unpaid media motherlode? Do some brands take the risk because the group they’re offending isn’t one they’re particularly concerned about? Like right-wing homophobes? Or feminists? Or slow-food-loving, long-vacation-taking liberals in the case of Caddy? Maybe. Although right-wing homophobes still make S’mores. And feminists buy t-shirts. We’d have to sit in on the meetings where the decisions were made to know for sure. But their boldness is intriguing. And love it or hate it, the Cadillac manifesto spot is a lot more engaging than yet another spot featuring yet another Cadillac cruising yet another expanse of Highway 1.

Somebody once asked Henny Youngman what the secret is to comedy.  He thought about it for a moment and gave the most amazingly revealing answer.  “Some people just know how to tell a joke.” That’s it. Creativity comes down to sensibilities. Nuances. You either have 'em or you don’t.  

08.15.14   The Biz, The Studio

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