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Controversial ads and the creative mindset

Do ads bordering on racism, ethnic divisions and hurting religious sentiments make sense from a creative standpoint? BestMediaInfo speaks to leading creative personalities to find out

Neha Saraiya | Delhi | December 12, 2011

In 2009, fast food chain Burger King came up with a poster advertisement that showed a picture of Goddess Lakshmi sitting on a beef burger. The print ad released in Spain had a slogan that read 'La merienda es sagrada', meaning that the snack is so sacred that even the gods promote it. As a result of hurting the sentiments of the Hindu religion, Burger King not only had to apologise publicly but also withdraw its posters after a furore was raised against the ad.

While this was a classic example of touching upon the religious sensitivities, Cadbury earlier this year had to face the prospect of a ‘black consumer boycott’ with its racist ad that compared supermodel Naomi Campbell to a chocolate bar. The ad suggested ‘Move over Naomi – there is a new diva in town’. Targeted to promote Cadbury’s new chocolate bar, Bliss, the company later released a statement clarifying the ad as ‘a light-hearted take on the social pretensions of Cadbury Dairy Milk Bliss’. But finally, after facing a huge commotion, particularly from the black people, the ad was withdrawn.

Even the latest Benetton ‘Unhate’ campaign that used digitally altered pictures of politicians and social leaders in the name of promoting 'global love', aroused huge controversy. The ad was pulled out in less than an hour of its launch from the Benetton website, following a strong Vatican protest.

So, what is the creative mindset and philosophy that goes into creation of such controversial ads? Despite knowing that they will raise eyebrows, why are they made? BestMediaInfo.com explores.

There is a school of thought that believes that any publicity is good publicity. In today’s increasingly cluttered space, ads have a primary task of attracting attention. Using a hook that’s useful in creating attention is the reason why such campaigns are often made. But doesn’t the notoriety that follows affect reputation? Does the creative clan make such ads willfully even as they are aware of the fallout?

Ashish Mishra, Chief Strategist & Head, Water, a speacialist agency of the Mudra Group, says it is all about the ‘shock value’ delivered through such ads. He argued, “The creative mindset is that of creating a shocker. Ads often work through this simple premise – lower the defences of rationality by using emotions such as humour, fear, admiration, empathy, inspiration, awe or shock, and then slip in your message. Once these genres of emotional appeals catch attention and lower the conscious defences of the prospect, the brand message gets conveyed and is received far more easily.”

Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Executive Creative Director, South Asia, Ogilvy & Mather, echoes a similar view. He said, “To sell a brand, the ad can chose to appeal to a person's logical mind, use humour to make him smile, charm him with human warmth or shock him in a way that he will never forget you. This last approach is a controversial one and few marketers are willing to take the risk.”

However, it is to be noted that there’s a difference between deliberately creating ‘positive’ controversies that are relevant to the brand context, and controversies that are solely for the purpose of provoking and attracting attention. While the former is a useful tool for creating an emotional hook, the latter is only about highlighting oneself or a product against a topical and popular backdrop.

KV Sridhar ‘Pops’, National Creative Director, Leo Burnett India, talks about the generation stage of a brand. “What happens is when you give birth to a brand, there is a DNA of a brand which is created by the onus of the brand and the people who are managing the brand. So it will become a conscious decision wherein they would want a brand to behave in a certain way.  It’s quite similar to pre-determining whether the brand will behave like Amitabh Bachchan or Rakhi Sawant!”

Thus, it’s not solely in the hands of the creative people; brands also take a conscious decision on how their tonality should be. They have their own attitude and the way they behave in public. For instance, Benetton is a notable exception of a brand that does not shy away from creating shock; it embraces it as a brand philosophy. It is a brand that has always been against racism or ethnic divides and has a very bold and clear stand on these issues. And this is not confined to just advertising or visual merchandise; the brand spends millions of dollars on ground activities and social causes.

Some advertisers like to play on the edge, but with caution at the same time, as there’s a very thin line dividing a ‘controversial’ ad from a ‘risky’ one. Chattopadhyay cites the example of brand Diesel’s recent ‘Be stupid’ campaign that was although a bit low on the controversial quotient, was quite ‘risky’. “It's an ad campaign that extols the virtues of being a fearless fool, a doer who outdoes the intellectual -- who is portrayed as a ditherer who is powerless to act decisively. This sort of advertising tends to work better with the youth because this is an age group of which rebelliousness is a part and parcel of. The older people get, the more they tend to maintain the status quo, cling to good old-fashioned values and so they find these kinds of controversial campaigns off-putting.”

For Bruce Haines, Global Chief Strategy Officer, Cheil Worldwide, there are specific categories that benefit from such hyped advertising. He remarked, “Fashion brands aiming to create a rebellious ‘down with the kids’ image might use this route to the benefit of the brand.” Although Haines may have demarcated the use of controversial advertising from a creative’s viewpoint to a certain segment, he accepts that in those categories also, it may backfire at times. “These days most kids know that these brands are owned by huge, rich companies and these kinds of ads lack real credibility.”

Surely, if the ad gets exposed as a cheap gimmick and a publicity stunt, the creators get the tags of lazy minds, insensitive and opportunistic. This happens not necessarily because people are shocked but because they don't ring true. This is the reason why most agencies don't promote this kind of work. The Benetton campaign, for example, was produced pretty much in-house. Most agencies know that most clients won't buy this kind of approach even they might think it a good idea.

But, in a situation of an ad backfiring, who stands to lose more -- the brand or the agency? “I think damage to the client's brand is much longer lasting than to the agencies. The agency's brand name isn't publically displayed and our business has a short memory. Consumers on the other hand have memories like elephants,” averred Haines.

While the Benetton brand has a distinct identity and has been consistent in its communication, that is the reason that the ‘Unhate’ campaign doesn’t come much as a shocker to many. However, such ads can also be used as a tool to tighten the loosening grip of the brand. As Chattopadhyay explained, “Benetton as a brand has slipped below the radar lately, so they decided to renew their shock tactics with their recent campaign. Needless to say, it has certainly got them the world's attention. But then the campaign needs to have the product to go with this bold image they are portraying. In other words, Benetton’s new line really needs to be at the edge of fashion.”

On the other hand, Ranjan Bargotra, President, Crayons Advertising, put an Indian perspective to it stating there are limitations to Indian creative people pursuing this form of advertising. “India is by and large alien to such controversial ads. And this has its reasons – religious diversity, lower tolerance levels on religious/ethnic issues and, importantly, the huge cost of media. Prohibitive media costs mean most brands wouldn't want to incur a huge expense and invite trouble from religious bodies at the same time. So it is extremely rare to chance upon such ads in India.” He cites a failed example of such an attempt -- the ‘Green Ply’ ad where an old man changes his religion so that he may be buried in a coffin made from Green Ply! Unfortunately for the brand, the ad didn’t raise enough controversy.

Thus, controversial advertising does work so long as it is strategic in intent, and has thought through the implications, and is in sync culturally with the brand, and ensures that no individual or community is hurt by it. But the final decision is really not in the hands of the creative people. In the final analysis, it is all about the culture and boldness of the brand, and how much stomach the client has for such ads. The interesting thing is that in most cases it’s the consumer who is the final arbiter either way: the consumer is the one who raises the red flag against an “unacceptable” ad and it’s the same consumer who sends the brand laughing to the bank after the din and fury is over. Just as Indians continue to devour Burger Kings even today J

Neha@BestMediaInfo.com

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Comments (2)
  • SESASE- 8 years ago

    Most of the Ad creators do fail to recognize- 'one man's humor may mostly be another man's anger'.

  • FredParker- 8 years ago

    The advertising industry needs to tackle the white genocide program: Africa for the Africans,Asia for the Asians,white countries for EVERYBODY! Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries. The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them. Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites. What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries? How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem? And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this? But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews. They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white. Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.