Beware too much of a bad thing

Shocking or provocative advertising, such as Gucci’s recent offering in Vogue magazine, will always have detractors who condemn it on moral grounds. From a purely commercial perspective, however, it appears to have much to recommend it.

The very act of bending or finessing the rules (as enshrined in an advertising code of practice) is sure, if the creative execution is sharp enough, to get you noticed. And in these times of clutter, media fragmentation and asphyxiated marketing budgets, that’s no mean achievement. Better still, the inherent prudishness of the British public more or less guarantees that the media will gleefully blazon the offending ad in places the best media planners and buyers could only dream of reaching. It is difficult to measure exactly the value of editorial copy against advertising copy, but David Ogilvy’s suggestion of 6:1 sounds a good place to start.

So let no one suggest that shock advertising is necessarily a wicked and misguided strategy. Its services to brand awareness can be incalculable. Look, for instance, at the remarkable success of the FCUK campaign, which has done wonders for French Connection off the back of routine condemnation by the regulatory authorities. And then there’s the Benetton campaign. Though it ended nearly three years ago, who can’t remember the rich pageant of kissing nuns, moribund AIDS patients and dead mercenaries that Oliviero Toscani unleashed on us? Which is more than you say for most ad campaigns of that vintage.

Yes, look; and then look again. French Connection may have got away with it: it’s too early to say. But even judged on its own terms, the value of the Benetton campaign has been dubious. The high awareness achieved seems to have purchased notoriety rather than fame. And there is not a shred of convincing evidence, looking back, that the campaign succeeded in boosting Benetton sales.

Besides, there are other, subtler downsides to provocative campaigns, which could affect the industry as a whole if the trickle of ‘bad taste’ turns into a trend. One, arguably, is the corrosive effect they will have on the public’s fragile trust in advertising. What, for instance, are trusted brands like Homebase and B&Q doing getting involved in a seamy ‘price comparison’ spat that has embroiled them with the ASA? Do they really think it will elevate their reputations among consumers as price champions? Gucci, meanwhile, may well regard what it has done as ‘brave’ and ‘mould-breaking’ – which it is. That doesn’t alter the fact that it risks cheapening the brand.

Taken individually, such examples may not amount to much, but at tidal wave of them would be a very different matter.

Currently, only a tiny fraction of ads attract complaints – one in 250,000 non-broadcast ads, according to the ASA. But the statistics obscure the point: it is the few that get through which create all the mayhem and test the virility of the regulators. True, with former adman Stephen Carter freshly ensconced in the Ofcom chief executive’s chair, and the Government bent on a laissez-faire regulatory regime, there seems little immediate threat of a statutory backlash. But nothing is for ever.

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