Ricky Gervais and Top Gear; how funny does the US find Britain?

Art director Steve Mawhinney is now based in San Francisco after working for agencies in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the wake of rows surrounding Ricky Gervais, Groupon and Top Gear The Drum asked him to assess whether or not the UK sense of humour can translate to a US market.

The headlines after ranged from "Jennifer Lopez Threatened to Kill Ricky Gervais at Golden Globes" to " Top Golden Globe's Exec says Ricky Gervais 'Definitely Crossed the Line' ".

After the dust had settled the net result was viewing figures were up 14% on the previous year.

And the previous year was up on 2008 thanks to Ricky's goading of the celebrity audience.

Celebrities are fair game.

Why shouldn't they be.

Their business is to be in the public eye and sometimes they do very daft things in public.

Although some in the US think they should have an almost royal untouchable status it looks like the viewing public disagree and enjoy seeing the stars squirm.

Moving onto Top Gear.

Are Mexicans fair game?

According to Top Gear they are.

There's not that many Mexicans in the UK so they could probably get away with a

few gags at their expense.

Afraid not.

As the story broke globally, the days of being able to sweep a controversy of this magnitude under Aunties carpet are long gone in the digital age.

In the US, 48.4 million people, the largest ethnic or race minority, could potentially have been offended.

Thankfully the BBC saw sense before they aired the show here and removed the offending remarks.

However the damage was already done.

Comedy, by nature, will always be at someone or somethings expense.

I just expected a greater level of comedy sophistication from the Beeb than the stereotypical cheap shots portrayed by the Top Gear presenters.

In US advertising the humor tends to be either very conservative or 'frat-boy'.

I think this reflects how cautious American marketers are about backlash.

The Gap logo redesign and the social media uproar has every marketing director thankful it wasn't them.

Groupon, the latest internet darling, wanted to make a noise among the more established Superbowl brands.

They succeeded by playing off Tibet's woes with their curry expertise but at what expense to the brand.

They've subsequently pulled the ads with the CEO taking responsibility and making the obligatory very public apology.

Another scalp for social media.

Whether the ad was in poor taste is subjective. For me, it was just a very poor ad.

Equally poor were the Doritos Superbowl ads.

A good example of why crowd sourcing isn't always the best answer.

The product is easily forgettable in these 'frat-boy' gags. It could have been an ad for a Corn Dog, a Twinkie or any other fine American delicacy.

A recent example of American advertising at its best is Old Spice and the inspired casting of Isaiah Mustafa.

The writing is sublime and the product is central to the message.

I once had an old group head at JWT who reprimanded my writer and me after presenting script No.30 for our first TV ad for a 20" Kelloggs promotion.

He said "Stop writing skits and start writing scripts".

In our desire to entertain we'd forgotten that we were selling something.

That was something I used to admire in American advertising especially in the Joe

Sadelmaier era.

He could sell you a Wendy's burger, a Mr. Coffee maker or Fedex services with wit and charm.

Apart from Old Spice, it's a dying art here in the US.

Put the product at the center, find an arresting consumer insight and the humour or humor will write itself without having to insult anybody.

What makes a housewife in Jackson Hole, Wyoming laugh may well be the same thing as one in Cleethorpes, NE Lincolnshire.

American shows have filled UK programming schedules for years with great success (Cheers, Friends, Frasier, to name a few).

So I think it's not so much the cultural differences are the problem.

We just have to be smarter and funnier.

Steve Mawhiinney is an art director based in San Fransciso

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