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July 24, 2008
The Defense of the Offensive
Advertising is very effective—at pissing people off. Should we care?

It’s a weekly occurrence. Someone raises a stink about an ad they found offensive. This week, it’s a spot featuring a potent combination of Mr. T, a tank, a Gatling gun, an effeminate power walker, and a rapid-fire candy bar assault. Which some people are viewing as a cornucopia of homophobia.

You know the lifecycle of these debates: Someone gets offended and tells the world they’re offended. People attack the person who’s offended. Someone comes along and agrees with the first person. Then the issue goes away, until another offending ad appears.

In the world of advertising, it’s never-ending. Is there a proper response?

Let’s take a look at some of the most common responses:

“You don’t have the right not to be offended.” That’s true. Way too many people say “I’m offended by that” in response to something they’d simply rather not deal with. But let’s talk about rights for a minute. The right to advertise isn’t a right that’s afforded complete protection by our Constitution (I’m talking about America, uh, no offense to you foreigners.) Advertising is regulated commercial speech, not “free speech” as the 1st Amendment defines it. If you have the right to make an ad that offends people, fine. Someone has the right to say it sucks or it's offensive, and say it to whomever will listen, including your client.

“Grow up.” “Get over it.” Sorry, if those are the best counter-arguments you can make to defend an ad, you’re the one who needs to grow up. It’s a characteristic of little kids and teenagers that their less-than-fully developed brains lead them to believe their actions don’t have consequences.

“It’s just an ad.” This one usually comes out of the mouths of people who’ll otherwise go to any lengths to defend bad work, particularly if it’s their own. In an industry where a gold trinket is a ticket to a pseudo-fame and not-so-pseudo fortune, plenty of people will jerk off over something they like, even though it’s “just an ad,” and treat it like the Hope Diamond.

Often, the defense of offensive ads is just as irrational and nonsensical as the protests of the offended people. And for the ad industry, that doesn’t help our cause much.

We ought to assume some responsibility for the messages and images we disseminate. The problem is, we are rarely forced to. We do what we do, then it’s off our desks. It gets produced, and then it’s out there. How often do we have to deal with the consequences?

In particular, creative teams rarely find out the results of what they do—whether it’s in a measurable medium or not. Unless, of course, you piss someone off. Which I’ve done.

I wrote a radio spot where, with sound design, we recreated a mortgage burial and played “Taps” in the background. And we got a letter of objection from the widow of a WW II vet. Our client, one clearly not known for its morality, didn’t care. “Hey, at least it got attention,” was their response. This was before 9/11 and before the Iraq war. Would I write the same spot with that same song today? I doubt it. But I did it, and I still like it.

It’s impossible to please everyone, particularly when you’re trying to do humorous work, where there needs to be some exaggeration in a scenario to make it funny. Plus, we all have our personal buttons that can be pushed. There’s even a group that protests the way straight white men are presented as buffoons in domestic scenarios.

The constant uproar over offensive ads simply mirrors our general society. Compared to say, 50 years ago, groups like gays, minorities, animal activists and other forms of special interest groups are standing up for themselves, whereas before they were largely unseen or unheard. And with more media outlets than ever to get the message across, they’re hard to ignore.

So if your agency is on the verge of producing something you think is cutting through the clutter, pushing the envelope and a triumph of “edgy,” ask:

Is that the best ad you could’ve done? Could you have come up with a better concept? Is it a malicious ad? Did you do it to get a cheap laugh at someone’s expense?

We ought to think more carefully before we produce an idea that might be misconstrued. And maybe bring more ideas to consider in the first place. At the end of the day, we’re spending other people’s money. We’re interrupting other people’s entertainment. We are the uninvited guests, the necessary evils. We should never take that too lightly.

Perhaps we ought to concentrate on really offensive things—the bait and switch ads, the yelling car dealer spots, the special offer ads with too much fine print, the ads that are now in every inch of public space.

Oh, wait. I just offended a whole bunch of ad hacks.

But they’ll get over it. They always do.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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