Appalling ads or a palling tactic?

A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words – except where the picture is an ad image and the words are not copywriting but editorial. Then the equation is entirely reversed.

Here, in a nutshell, is the rationale of the shocking ad. For why worry about fusty, often ineffectual regulatory authorities of increasingly dubious legitimacy when you can get yourself talked about in newspapers, magazines and on television? And not always critically, either. For every irate plaintiff appealing to the ASA or ITC, there will be someone, somewhere, prepared to hail the “offensive” ad as “refreshing” and “boundary-challenging”.

And what leverage that comment, critical or otherwise, brings to a limited ad budget! It cuts, at a stroke, through increasingly dense media clutter and gives rise to a kind of offline, free-of-charge viral marketing. What’s more, many clients will be delighted with the resulting coverage; all those, at least, who concur with Wilde’s aphorism that there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

So it’s no surprise to find this sort of advertising on the increase. A brief, and by no means exhaustive, survey of the recent past will give the flavour: Gossard’s Find your G spot; Condé Nast’s dot-com nipples ad; the Sophie Dahl “odalisque” campaign for Yves St Laurent’s Opium; The Barnardo’s ad showing young children in various shocking situations, such as shooting up heroin; the Commission for Racial Equality’s ad featuring a black man next to the headline “Scared? You should be. He’s a dentist”; Tango; and the evergreen permutations of that printer’s literal, fcuk.

Not all, it has to be said, had complaints upheld against them, but they do form a kind of community nonetheless: that defined by clause 5.1 of the codes of advertising and sales promotion practice, the benchmark against which they were tested. It states: “Advertisements should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability. Compliance with the codes will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards of decency.”

‘Prevailing standards of decency’ is the nub of the problem. What exactly are they? Are they, for example, reflected in a top-rating ‘reality’ TV programme whose degrading voyeuristic appeal matches that of the Roman Colosseum (admittedly without the bloodshed and wild animals); or in the decision to hang two controversial photographs of naked children in Charles Saatchi’s art gallery? Admen are fond of portraying themselves as essentially conservative folk, mirroring rather than moulding social values. Apologists of the sensationalist ad should certainly have little difficulty in establishing effective intellectual camouflage within the current crop of mores.

Ah, say the critics, but these sensationalist ads don’t really work. Look at the Benetton campaign: lots of awareness; not so great on developing business. Not quite true. Charities have often achieved remarkable success with carefully developed “shock” campaigns – while risking some adverse publicity. Take the RSPCA as an example. On the commercial side, no one can deny that the fcuk and Tango campaigns, whatever people may think of them, have produced tangible business results.

But such campaigns can easily wear, or weary, out. They numb their audience into indifference or provoke it to anger. They become not so much ‘brave’ as sloppy. Real creativity requires something more: like the John West Salmon commercial, which has just picked up the top prize at the Creative Circle awards.

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