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Some Sheepish Controversy

By The Drum | Administrator

May 4, 2006 | 6 min read

IRN BRU's new billboard ad

It’s funny, it will make the target market laugh and it’s completely in line with the brand’s identity, but is Irn Bru sailing a bit close to the knuckle with its latest campaign? Strathclyde Police, it has been reported, have been offended by a recent Irn-Bru billboard advert in which a sheep refers to officers-of-the-law as “pigs”. This is another in a series of adverts for the Scottish soft drink giant, which has again both entertained and offended.

The risqué advert has a picture of a sheep, and scrawled next to it is the immortal line “I nicked the cow’s Irn-Bru so she told the pigs.” Funny, admittedly, but is it a step too far?

Irn-Bru has always been a brand that pushes the boundaries, something that Gerry Farrell, creative director at the Leith Agency, who created the campaign, feels lets them off the hook. “We never go out of our way to offend or upset the public in any way with our advertising,” he says. “The sheep falls into Irn-Bru's brand equity of being a likeable maverick. In execution this means that advertising for Irn-Bru has character but not in an offensive or crass way. In actual fact we ran the sheep ad past consumers prior to posting as part of a research exercise to establish which execution people found most rewarding. Sheep scored higher than any other execution.”

This is not the first time that the soft drink brand has caused offence.

In 2003 it ran into trouble with a TV campaign showing an unborn baby burping on a baby monitor after a midwife tried to tempt it from the womb with a can of Irn-Bru. The ITC received 53 complaints, some stating that the advert may be upsetting on the grounds of bad taste or that it may upset expectant mothers. None were upheld by the ITC, which said it ‘did not believe that viewers generally were likely to associate such a far-fetched portrayal of childbirth with real-life experience’.

Advertising watchdog Ofcom received 17 complaints in 2004 for an advert for Irn-Bru that featured a scene in which a seemingly wholesome 1950’s family sang round a piano. Their chorus of "Everybody in the world loves Irn- Bru" came to a halt when the mother proclaimed, “even though I used to be a man” to her stunned kin, before ending - showing the mother in the process of shaving while whistling the catchy tune.

In its assessment, Ofcom stated: “the mother was shown as a strong character and not ashamed of her transexuality”. It rulled that while the scenes around the piano weren’t offensive, the end scene with the woman shaving could be seen as directly mocking transsexual women. As a result, the advert was taken off of the air.

Farrell believes controversial advertising can work well in drawing attention to a product. “It clearly has in the past,” he says. “Benetton sought this kind of controversy with their outdoor campaign and, for a while, were tremendously successful. More recently brands such as Playstation have taken a similar tack. The ASA have recently published their list of the most complained about ads from 2005. Top of the list was a KFC ad where some ladies were singing with their mouths full.

“I don't believe for a minute that either KFC or their agency expected it to generate such levels of complaints. So sometimes there are brands who overtly seek out controversy and generate noise by doing so, while other brands stumble into controversy and generate the same attention.”

Many will remember the long-running series of highly controversial adverts used for Benetton, which caused an outcry due to their apparent lack of relation to the clothing that they were meant to advertise. Included in this series were billboard posters of a black woman breast-feeding a white baby, a nun and priest kissing, and a black stallion mounting a white mare.

Kevin Bird of Family, who was behind the controversial but successful, ad campaign for Pixel House which riffed on the faked photos of Iraqi prisoners of war being abused, said: “Controversy is something that can be used to provoke a reaction really. You find that sometimes you have to change something that has been done for a while and it can be a shock to the system. I don’t believe in doing something controversial for the sake of it. Everyone remembers the Benetton adverts and in my opinion I didn’t think it was a great campaign as everyone could see they were doing it deliberately.

“Let’s face it – a controversial advert can be highly effective as long as you remember why you are doing it and what you are doing it for. We do it for a reason but the advert still has to be relevant and not done simply for the sake of being controversial.”

Angus Walker, creative director of Frame, insists that controversy is often not a good idea. “Better to develop a great idea that everyone notices and some people complain about rather than try to shock for the sake of it and hope they remember your brand,” he says. “It's a bit like lighting a fire with petrol. It works, but it's a bit of a cheat and it doesn't really last. Oh, and it's dangerous.”

Guy Robertson, managing partner of Guy Robertson Partnership agrees with Family’s Bird that as long as the objective is right, then controversy is a winner. “If the advert works to satisfy clear objectives and if it brings people into the business then it would be worth it and can only be judged as having succeeded,” he says. “I personally don’t have an issue with it, but everything has to go back to the objective and the result.”

However, in the end, it seems that most would agree with the old adage, that all publicity, even when controversial, is good publicity.

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