Can brands benefit from an ad ban?

It could be argued that in the digital age when brand reputations can be made or broken in hours the old adage “there is no such thing as bad publicity” no longer rings true. It is also contested, however, that some brands still unequivocally subscribe to the theory.

American Apparel ad banned

US retailer American Apparel fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority for the third time this year and again for using overtly sexual imagery earlier this month.

A search of Marketing and Google for “American Apparel” and “advertising” presents what most right minded observers would conclude are worrying results for the retailer – “’Pornographic’ American Apparel ads banned”, and “American Apparel ad ‘sexualises’ children” just two examples of headlines that could kill a brand.

The most recent ban prompted the expected debate on Marketing Week and elsewhere online about whether the regulator is being prudish for censuring an ad entirely in keeping with the brand’s image or entirely correct in taking a stand against an advertiser that overstepped the mark.

Some cynics also suggested on Twitter that in having the ad banned, American Apparel had achieved exactly what it set out to – exposure for an ad that would have otherwise sat unnoticed on the retailer’s website.

American Apparel is not the first brand to be accused of deliberately flouting the rules. In 2002, French Connection agreed to have all of its ads pre-vetted after several run-ins with the ASA over its FCUK ads.

It is argued that for some brands an ad ban is a necessary consequence in the pursuit of being seen as unconventional, even edgy.

Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, senior associate in the media, brands and technology team at law firm Lewis Silkin, says that some brands might see a benefit from having their campaigns banned but warns there are consequences.

“Brands can benefit from the oxygen of publicity but it could also backfire, there is a balance to be struck between being seen as edgy and controversial and being accused of sexualising children and young people.”

Ian Twinn, ISBA’s director of public affairs, says a “small minority of arch-pragmatists” might see an ad ban as a “calculated risk” but agrees the consequences outweigh the benefits.

“Having an ad banned is never a comfortable experience, but it is the cost of an effective self-regulatory system.

“The cost to reputation and the actual material cost of having to effectively scrap a campaign, even if it is hosted solely on an advertiser’s own website, is for the vast majority sufficiently prohibitive.  This penalty acts  as an effective deterrent for running potentially offensive ads.”

The ASA insists it is not at the point where it will take up the option to issue American Apparel with further sanctions. It is also adamant the retailer is not looking to provoke an ad ban.

A spokesman for the ASA adds: “Do brands really want headlines to say they’ve misled or offended people? We know from our conversations that they don’t. There is more value in learning from the negative story that in any positive spin there might be.”

American Apparel did not return requests for comment.


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