Is political correctness stifling the online advertising industry?
I recently came across an article published on Brainsauce entitled 23 Hilariously Un-Politically Correct Vintage Ads, containing what is quite simply a shocking collecting of pre-1970s ads. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine how some of these ever made the cut, but the truth is, there was a time when overt racism, pushing drugs to children and blatant misogyny were the nuts and bolts of ad agency land.
How times and attitudes have changed…or have they? On the face of it we live in a politically correct (PC) society, but sadly sexism, racism, class divides, religious prejudices etc are still prevalent in every corner of the globe. Donald Trump has most recently brought political correctness into the spotlight. He has railed about political correctness many times, and seems to relish expressing himself in ways that are far from being PC. When confronted by Fox host Megyn Kelly after he’d called some women “dogs” and “fat pigs”, Trump responded “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct…We have to stop being so politically correct in this country.”
So what is political correctness exactly? Author Barton Swaim, writing for The Washington Post, offers an interesting definition, which does a good job of balancing the positives with the negative:
“Political correctness…involves the prohibition of common expressions and habits on the grounds that someone in our pluralistic society may be offended by them. It reduces political life to an array of signs and symbols deemed good or bad according to their tendency either to include or exclude aggrieved or marginalized people from common life.”
“PC was born of a generous impulse, maybe — it’s good and right to avoid giving offense, when you can. But it has long been a blight and a menace. It obliges us to think constantly about a few topics — topics having mainly to do with racial and sexual identities, but other sorts of identities as well — even as it makes it impossible for us to speak openly and honestly about those same topics.”
Of course PC culture has been the source of jokes and satire for many years, and it has historically been prolific within advertising. But rightly or wrongly, advertisers now face far more constraints than they ever did in the 70s for example, and subjects such as alcohol, sex, religion and politics need to be handled with extreme sensitivity to avoid the wrath of The Advertising Standards Authority which received more than 37,000 complaints last year and banned or forced changes to almost 3,500 ads. Interestingly, it only takes one valid complaint to open an investigation.
The Moneysupermarket.com ads, for example, have topped the charts for complaints in the past two years. These eye-catching ads feature a man walking down a street and dancing whilst wearing denim shorts and high heeled shoes, but people found offence in the sexual nature of the content, and other ads within the series. The ASA, while acknowledging that some viewers might have found the ads distasteful, did not judge them to be offensive and in breach of its Code. And of course for others, the ads are funny and promote positive messages of diversity…and there’s the rub.
What is and what is not offensive will always be subjective. Above all, advertising is a commercial game, usually designed to stir up some sort of emotive response which connects an individual with the product or service the ad is promoting. While it would be unusual for a brand to try and deliberately offend its customers or potential customers, being ‘vanilla’ is rarely the objective either; for advertising to be powerful and have effect, it needs to make an audience sit up and take note. It can sometimes be tricky to be creative and achieve this, without offending a certain number of people. The problem is that with social media this minority group who’s been offended can speak out instantly and often appear larger than it really is, rapidly gather further viral support.
For example, last year KFC ran what was probably one of the shortest lived social media campaigns. It began with a racy teaser ad on Twitter with a “Not Safe For Work” tag and a pixelated image of a man and woman in a compromising position on the sofa. “Warning,” the tweet from KFC Australia’s official account stated. “Something hot and spicy is coming soon.”
Of course the Twitterati reacted as one might expect, lambasting the fast food brand for causing offence and the misogynist message it was putting out. One tweet said it had “put women’s rights back 50 years in this country”. Needless to say, the campaign was pulled within the hour.
In a similar vein, US department store Bloomingdales was compelled to apologise for a Christmas ad which many felt was inappropriate and in poor taste. The campaign pictured a man and woman dressed up for a night out, with the accompanying slogan “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking”. Understandably, members of the public took immediate offence, sharing the ad online as soon as it debuted and accusing the brand of promoting date rape, which of course was never the original intent.
So the question is, has PC gone too far within advertising? Are brands too scared to give their backing to ideas which break convention and tow the PC line a little, and is this stifling creativity within the industry? In the era of social media particularly, campaigns have the potential to reach all the way around the globe to far more people than their original target markets, including persons of all races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities and cultures. This creates more opportunities for people to be offended, but does this mean advertisers have the responsibility to be PC on potentially a global scale?
Historically, advertising which stirs some controversy or divided opinion is often the most memorable and successful. Bland, safe advertising just doesn’t create cut-through. Clearly the days of creating an ad with Santa smoking a cigar are well and truly over (thank goodness!), but should advertisers avoid using any image or message which could cause offence? Where do we draw the line? Consumers will be the ultimate judge…