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Want a controversial ad? Thecommich aims to please.

Posted by on Jan 12, 2010 in ad campaigns, BLOG, culture, political correctness | 3 Comments

Last post, thecommich showcased the much-ado-about-chicken Australian KFC ad (that has since become the most Re-Tweeted post on Mashable).

While it’s arguable about whether anyone should, as the Ozzies say, get their knickers in a bunch (over that commercial), it brings up a very good discussion on the value of controversial advertising as a way to not only get attention, but actively select target markets for the product it’s promoting.

Believe it or not, not everyone wants to be liked by everyone. Apple’s “I’m a Mac” ads clearly draw a line between Mac and PC users, with a subversive subtext that says if you’re still using Windows, you are clearly behind the curve. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The following ads are controversial in content,  message, and method of creation. They’re bound to get a rise or at least a reaction.

Thecommich requests her dear readers to respond, react, make a comment and take a stand… this is going to be interesting!

Controversial ad #1: PETA’s Veggie Love

‘Veggie Love’: PETA’s Banned Super Bowl Ad

The raconteurs at PETA have long been notorious for attention-getting stunts, like throwing red paint on fur-wearing celebrities and letting lab rats out of their cages. This time they up the ante with slick, hip advertising aimed at getting women (and men?) to, ah, get intimate with their veggies.

The ad was banned from appearing during Superbowl 2009 halftime. According to the PETA website, “NBC rejected the video because of concerns over ‘rubbing pelvic region with pumpkin,’  and a woman ‘screwing herself with broccoli.”

The good: For an organization mostly known for it’s “Anti” activities, this ad is actually very “Pro.” And it’s arguable that the Victoria’s Secret-esque format is so commonly used now that it’s almost unfair to ban this one on just account of its blatant sexuality. The ad has since become a cult favorite among the veggie/vegan/anti-animal cruelty community. Personally, I’d rather watch this ad than see pictures of mutilated cattle in magazines.

The bad: To quote from the movie Ratatouille, “One CAN get too familiar with vegetables.” Just try telling your son to chop broccoli with a straight face after having him see this ad. It’s not like they saved their media buys for late night TV.

Controversial ad #2: The Ashley Madison Agency

Did you know that there was an online service out there dedicated to helping married men and women have affairs? I didn’t either. Until I researched “controversial ads” on Google and found this:

The product concept, not to mention the presentation, was so unbelievably audacious that it too was banned from Superbowl Halftime – in fact, banned from airing anywhere else in the US… except Texas (?!?).

However, it looks like Ashley Madison had the last laugh –  not only was the company featured in Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Ellen, Larry King and the View, According to Fox Business News their number of members has grown from 1 to 2 million.

The good: Let’s not be naive here – adultery is as old as the institution of marriage. This is a perfect example of what I said in my last post about speaking to your target audience and not giving a F!@# about what those outside your target think.

Suggested activity: if you’re in an office right now, play the ad for a group of people. But don’t watch the ad – watch THEM watching it. Which of your co-workers make disgusted faces… and which of them have a strange gleam in their eye? Tun dun DUUUUUUUUN.

The bad… and the ugly: Do I even need to go into the many ways this ad is terrible? The sheer cynicism and poison of the logic behind the script?  The assumption that people who are married have no idea how to choose a lifelong partner? The weird “virtue” of not divorcing but having an affair instead?

I mean, hoorah for the free market and free will and providing a service to those who want it etc. etc. and so forth. All I can think is, I hope everyone who joins Ashley Madison’s Agency gets the clap. There I said it.

Controversial ad #3 : The NYC Anti-Smoking Campaign

Anti smoking ads have gained a lot of traction in the US, with The Truth campaign on the top of the list, staging documentary-style ads that target tobacco companies.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene aired its own version of these ads in 2009, with the help of Australian non-profit Quit. They used the same cinema verite format and a clever new slogan.

OK…. great concept…. filmed really well… and you definitely get the picture: If you don’t stop smoking, you’ll die and your child will be much more damaged than he is depicted now, after he lost you in the subway. By the way, that kid really knows how to act…. waitaminute, is he ACTING?

You guessed it – to film this sequence, they actually separated a 4 year old child from his mother and filmed him freaking out in the middle of a subway station. What’s crazier is that the “mother” cast in this commercial is his real mom, and gave full permission to do it.

The makers of the ad  insist that the toddler was only crying for one shot and for a very short period of time. On the other hand, the ad was so effective and the back story so intriguing that it was actually featured on the Today Show – thus getting much more viewership and exposure.

The good: Arguing the side of the devil is never easy, but I will try. First of all, kids cry all the time. That kid may very well have been crying later on in the day because he was tired or hungry. At least they didn’t pinch him, the way I’ve heard some filmmakers do when they need kids to cry for a shot. And yes, it is a very good message for a very good cause. If that working actress/mom actually had a family member die of smoking-related disease it would have made her motives a little more understandable.

The bad:  In an age where moms are looked down on for even speaking to their children harshly in public, a mom who would willingly set up her son for a few minutes of total distress to be filmed on TV and get paid for it…. I mean… seriously? I’m not much of an animal rights activist, but I wouldn’t even make a dog or cat distressed on purpose just so I could film it. The protection of innocents is something I feel most humans have hard-wired in themselves. It’s a little jaw dropping to me that a mother could do that to her child.

OK fearless readers – time for you guys to weigh in! Which ad for you was the most controversial? Which one had its merits for marketing? How far would YOU go to get attention, exposure and interest in your product?


  1. Katrina
    January 13, 2010

    Re: the PETA ad, despite my objections to PETA as an organisation (not so much to the Go Veg campaign as to their stance against using animals for medical research), i thought it was a cleverly directed ad: the pin-up girls appeal to young alpha males who are traditionally staunch meat-arians. And as they planned to show it at the Superbowl, you have your target audience locked in. Curiously, the ad is more suggestive than explicit –maybe the censoring had more to do with the meat industry's interests rather than any true moral objections? (And yes, I can't believe I'm defending PETA right now)

  2. blarmey
    January 13, 2010

    Interesting that the post is about controversy, and the blog has a prevailing trend of making impactful statements, yet you feel compelled to plug the good and the bad sides of everything.

    "Don't go changing to try to please me. You never let me down before" -b.j.

  3. Michelle Valeriano
    January 13, 2010

    Blarmy – well observed :) I was hoping to play devil's advocate on this one and let the reader make their own opinions. I think though that if you read through you'll have a pretty good idea of where I stand on each issue.