There’s a thin line between being edgy and being offensive when it comes to advertising, to stand out from the crowd marketers are constantly pushing the boundaries with the likes of Harvey Nichols, Paddy Power and Burger King all jumping on the bad taste bandwagon of late. But is there a legitimate place for ads which could be deemed by some as offensive in the industry?
As this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Chip Shop Awards, which regularly produces some of the cleverest, funniest and worst taste advertising ever seen, this year’s judges were asked to weigh in on taste and decency’s place in advertising and discuss the merits of their favourite Bad Taste Chip Shop entrants of the last decade.
According to the Advertising Standards Authority in its 50 year history it has dealt with nearly half a million complaints surrounding misleading or offensive ads, with its yearly reports often showing a 50/50 split between the two. Of course, shock in advertising is nothing new, retailer Benneton led the way for boundary pushing advertisements throughout the 80s and 90s.
Mr Baglee founder Patrick Baglee described Benneton’s 1993 advert featuring Aids activist David Kirby, on his deathbed, surrounded by his family as “shocking in the truest sense. And to some, it no doubt represented the height of bad taste. But for many others, it was the moment when the reality of Aids was given its signature image”.
Coy! Communications creative director Mark Denton says employing bad taste within a campaign is “like the Atomic Bomb,” explaining “you’ve got to be careful about when you pull it out of your arsenal” as there is a “danger that you’ll turn off potential punters and leave the bad taste alone” rather than the lasting impression of the campaign, and ultimately sales.
However, when used correctly bad taste can work a charm and Denton cites Club 18-30’s 2002 press campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi as the “perfect example”. He adds: “It was aimed at young holidaymakers who saw the promise of getting their leg over as a massive product benefit”.
Marcantonio Plus Hobbs partner Alfredo Marcantonio disagrees with Denton about the perfect use of bad taste within an ad and states that only “charity and public services messages can claim any right to upset, annoy, irritate and shock people” and should “remain the preserve of non-commercial messages”.
Similarly Baglee also echoes these sentiments commenting that “if revulsion is the stated intent of a piece of creativity, then its broader aims ought to at least be genuine and meaningful”.
Last year’s Bad Taste Chip winner ‘Considerate Suicide’ from Elvis Communications for TFL struck a chord with most of this year’s judging panel with many stating it was the best use of bad taste they’d seen throughout the award’s 10 year history. Ex-TBWA and now freelance creative Russell Speed even said that campaign deserves to run.
Speed continued: “The campaign is funny, informative and is so relevant to London Underground staff and passengers that it almost doesn’t feel like bad taste. For the bad taste category, it’s common for people to latch on to something topical and write an offensive gag, barely connected to a real product benefit. This campaign speaks the truth and deserves to run.”
Marcantonio seconded Speed’s points by furthering: “Despite the very dark subject matter it makes a telling point – you may have a compelling desire to end your own life, but don’t mess up other people’s lives too,” adding that the creative would have been “all the more powerful if the copy had led with the effects such acts can have upon the driver of the trains.”
Much like Speed’s comments about the category being filled with offensive gags barely connected to a product benefit, Baglee admits to feeling “squeamish” when it comes to judging the Bad Taste category as “the work is often clumsy, blunt, and ill considered”.
“The difference, for me, is when an idea manages to make a very strong point about its subject whilst simultaneously making you want to look the other way,” he explains. Baglee’s stand out piece from the Bad Taste category from the archives was the “Amputee Support Group” window postcard from 2010 by Air Creative.
The trivial medium of the ad along with the need to tear off contact information strips crosses “wherever the line between good and bad taste was hovering in 2010,” adding “what’s fascinating about this idea was that it was impossible to know where the person responsible was conscious of the subtle distinction, or, just being utterly tasteless for the sake of it”.
Executive creative director at RAAP, Jason Andrews, believes that honesty should be the main pull of a bad taste campaign, saying that bad taste can work as long as it “isn’t simply gratuitously offensive”. Of the Chip Shop Awards Bad Taste entrants over the years, Andrews chose Alex McGhee and Andy Stone’s 2010 entry for Carlsberg Special Brew “Don’t Worry” as the embodiment of these principles.
Andrews explains: “It uses bad taste to dramatise a product truth. Everyone knows why anyone drinks Special Brew. It gets you wasted, fast. And in this instance, if you choose to drive, it will also get you wasted, fast. Weirdly, this is very close to being a really responsible piece of advertising. By inverting all those sensibilities about moderating your drinking, it makes the point that you need to handle this product with care. Drink it by all means - but understand what it will do. It's a good example of how the rug–pulling impact of bad taste can actually carry a really relevant message.”
Taste and decency will always be a controversial subject in advertising with Baglee summing up “one person’s bad taste is another’s call to action” and Marcantonio claiming “bad taste, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. As advertising moves more and more into the unknown world of digital and social media where opinions and offence can be shared in an instant there is an argument that agencies will push the boundaries even more.
Denton, however, leaves advertisers, and this year’s Chip Shop entrants, with one piece of advice: “Use bad taste with caution and make sure it will be appreciated by your target audience…unless, of course, your concept is really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, funny”.
The entry deadline for this year’s Chip Shop Awards is Friday 8 March; all entries should be submitted via the Chip Shop Awards website