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Harvey Nichols Ryanair Paddy Power

No offence: How creative strategies are being impacted by the threat of social media storms

By Angela Haggerty | Reporter

March 18, 2013 | 5 min read

With the advent of social media allowing the British public to vent its outrage on a regular basis, The Drum’s Angela Haggerty takes a look at the place of offence in advertising, and how the threat of online storms are impacting on brands’ creative communications.

With the UK government removing the word ‘insulting’ from the Public Order Act and police forces reporting a 780 per cent increase in reports of social media related crime in the last four years, Britons have never seemed more offended.After a number of arrests under section five of the act – including an Oxford student asking a police officer if he realised his horse was gay – and a campaign backed by MPs, home secretary Theresa May announced in January that the wording of “a person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” would be amended. A month later, a Freedom of Information request revealed the pressure the UK’s police forces have come under as a result of complaints involving social media, leading director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer to provide interim guidelines differentiating between illegal and offensive material, with a three month consultation on the issue to follow.As the country has come under an increasing attack of moral hysteria, how to deal with offence by social media has perplexed the authorities, with some apparently knee-jerk reactions making the headlines. It’s undeniable that moral lines are frequently crossed, and it’s often indefensible, but whether that is deserving of jail time – as in the case of 19-year-old Matthew Woods, convicted last year for posting offensive material on Facebook about missing child April Jones – is questionable. This is a particularly pertinent issue for the creative industries, where the right to be explicit is fundamental. Advertising and offence have a long history, but the industry now has to contend with social media.Jane Asscher, founding partner at 23red, says social media outrage is affecting approaches to advertising: “The threat of ‘Twitter storms’ do influence communications and content strategies. Social media outrage and its repercussions can be a real threat for advertisers. While research shows that only seven per cent of word of mouth is via social media, blogs and chat rooms, with 93 per cent occurring offline, the media mavens can pick up a negative story online and spread it into mass media, causing far more damage.”As one tabloid noted in a gleeful article last year over a Harvey Nichols advertising campaign featuring models wetting themselves, Twitter has become the first outlet for the “offended few to show their disgust” and thus it has also become a source of copy for the media, heaping further pressure on advertisers to stay on the right side of the audience. Steering clear of the obviously provocative issues, however, isn’t enough in the UK. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) released its most complained about adverts to coincide with its 50th anniversary last year, and the ad most grumbled about was a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial which featured call centre workers singing with their mouths full. This affront to manners apparently fuelled a moment of national rage.The relationship between offence and advertising can also be an important one, with the shock factor often being used, with effect, to tell a greater truth: “‘Read this you piece of shit’ is a memorable example of how offence can be used wisely to raise awareness of an issue,” says Russell Speed, former creative director at TBWA and Chip Shop Awards judge. “The creatives at Saatchi & Saatchi and the brand, Anti-Slavery International, would have felt absolutely justified in its tone. Shock and outrage at the issue is far more important than disgust about the ad.”“There are always one or two advertisers who court controversy in order to maximise their budget by leveraging their bought media into ‘owned’ and ‘earned’,” adds Asscher. “Currently Paddy Power is using this strategy and it’s being successful commercially. However, history shows that this can be a hazardous route to take – French Connection and Benetton are shadows of their former selves, and Ryanair was voted worst short-haul airline by Which? in December 2012.” A recent report from the ASA explored public perceptions of offence in advertising and it showed that much of the offence reported by the public isn’t personal, it’s the concern that an advert might offend other people which provokes reaction, perhaps indicating a heartening notion that the act of being offended is often on behalf of fellow citizens, particularly those perceived to be in vulnerable, defenceless groups of society.“I think in some respects we’ve become a society too aware of our rights and not aware enough of our responsibilities,” suggests Paul Burke, writer and producer at AMV BBDO. “There now seems to be more of a victim culture and the ‘right’ to be offended appears to be part of that. People always have and always will be offended by gratuitous violence or pornography, quite understandably, but there has been a definite increase in people assuming offended dignity, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly on behalf of their own or other people’s race, gender or sexual orientation. A generation ago, people were more offended by blasphemy or profanity than they were by casual sexism or racism. Times change but there will always be those who take the rules too far and try to stifle free speech. It is a threat but I don’t think it’s any worse than it ever was. It’s just applied to different things.”With the online revolution and all its benefits comes the pitfalls; members of the public now have a platform to express every piece of fury over anything deemed slightly inappropriate, and that is their right. It is perhaps also the right – and responsibility – of the creative industries to challenge that. Just don’t do it with your mouth full.
Harvey Nichols Ryanair Paddy Power

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