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When Ads Attack
By: Diane Levine
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In a culture infused with tell-it-all books, show-it-all reality shows, and say-it-all songs, it seems damn near impossible for anything to offend anyone anymore. So, perhaps a tip of the hat (be it Santa or yarmulke) is due to the folks behind this recent billboard for the vodka brand, Wodka. For they have achieved the impossible. Besides sparking an immediate public backlash and a complaint from the Anti-Defamation League (who called it "crude and offensive," Yahoo News reported), they managed to offend me and a good portion of my social network — a group that tends to consider "politically incorrect" a badge of honor. How could MMJ, the agency behind the billboard, make such a misstep? 

In explaining the thought process that went into the ad, Brian Gordon, head of MMJ, pointed out that he himself was Jewish and stated that the company thought the billboard would be perceived as "ha-ha quirky." And truth be told, several people confided that they did find the ad itself funny. It was the fact that the ad ran on a public billboard that made it offensive. To me, this sounds like a classic case of misappropriating not so much the message, but the media. 

I'd bet money that Gordon and company live, work, and socialize at the center of a multicultural, multireligious circle. A group comprising all types of people who went to school with, hung out with, worked with, and even married all other types. When the bulk of your life is proof that people are essentially equal, poking fun at your differences becomes no big deal and sometimes you let the stereotypes fly just for fun. Take it from me. I'm Asian/Pacific Islander (according to the checkbox), and if I had a dollar for every time I heard a crack about eating dogs, driving terribly, and possessing superhuman math skills, I'd have $124,962.52. I know this because I actually do possess superhuman (but just regular Asian) math skills. And as my round-eyed brethren can attest, I can dish it as well as I take it. But I would never, ever, EVER dish it in places that it doesn't belong.

MMJ's mistake was in confusing what their inner circle would consider "ha ha quirky" with what the masses would find funny. And as they found out, a little lighthearted ribbing between friends quickly becomes inappropriate and even offensive when blown up to billboard proportions and delivered to people you don't even know.

That's the thing with irreverent creative. It has its place, but that place is very defined, and often very small. A tongue-in-cheek tone only works if your media targets a group that speaks tongue-in-cheek fluently. And when you're talking to Joe (or Joel) Public, you run a high risk of getting lost in translation. That said, the misguided creative minds at Wodka and MMJ need not despair. Your billboard may have crashed and burned on the street corner, but you're killing it over at Heeb magazine.


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About the Author
Diane Levine develops campaigns and writes killer copy for advertising agency, Think Creative. She also blogs, tweets, and writes about meat. Find her here
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