As Oscar Pistorious was sent down this week, a Paddy Power executive offered only a measured apology for its controversial “money off if he walks” Pistorius ad, which drew a record 5,525 complaints to the advertising regulator earlier this year.
Richard Harris, Paddy Power’s head of online marketing, told an audience at the Ad Tech conference this week: “Occasionally we get it wrong. The Oscar Pistorius one is probably a good example of something which probably crossed the line.”
Probably? Let’s remember this was an ad which was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which said the ad endangered the “good reputation of advertising” and, furthermore, took the highly unusual step of ordering Paddy Power to pull the ad immediately rather than wait until the end of its standard investigation process.
That said, the response from Harris typifies Paddy Power’s view of the role of the body which regulates it, which at times can appear questionable, if not disquieting.
The bookmaker, and likeminded irreverent brands Ryanair and BrewDog, are known within the industry as brands that like to court controversy and, observers say, fall under the scrutiny of the regulator.
The argument goes that Paddy Power does not have the marketing muscle of say a Unilever to blanket the world with an advertising campaign, but it can generate effective publicity by producing controversial ads which attract complaints.
However it seems, according to Harris, that Paddy Power’s strategy is more nuanced than just wanting the glare of publicity rendered by a controversial ad.
Harris said: “The TV commercials are aired to be TV commercials and not get banned generally.”
On the flip side, however, Harris said: “Certainly things like the chav tranquilizer or Joey Barton tasering a tea lady [video ads] – there is a pretty good chance that things like that will get banned which is OK.
“Sometimes when things get banned they take their own lease of life in other channels like YouTube or elsewhere.”
So Paddy Power has one rule for TV ads, one for video.
Whether this is showing great foresight in projecting that its ads will be go viral once banned or simply being Machiavellian in making a mockery of the rules is a moot point.
But playing fast and loose with the body that regulates you is not without danger.
Dan Smith, head of the ad law team at Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co, said: “People often think that the worse you can expect with the ASA is a kind of public slap on the wrist. That does work for most brands.
“But there are some brands which don’t care about that at all, which paint themselves as being cheeky and outside the system. Paddy Power is not really touched reputationally by an adverse adjudication from the ASA.”
Smith points to the examples of Ryanair and French Connection, whose naughtiness compelled the regulator to take special action. Ryanair’s persistence in breaching guidelines prompted the ASA to refer it to the Office of Fair Trading, which then forced it to make future commitments about its advertising.
Likewise, French Connection, architect of the FCUK ads, irked the ASA so much that it ended up vetting its ads before launch.
Despite this threat, the likelihood is that Paddy Power will be free to carry on pushing social conventions, as the simple truth is that it is not a serial offender, despite the hoo-ha caused by its advertising.
In the last four years, seven Paddy Power ads have been investigated, with four upheld. Compare that to the more conservative Virgin Media, with 41 investigations, 33 upheld.
Matt Wilson, communications and marketing manager at the ASA, said: “Paddy Power have actually not been banned that many times. They have generated lots of complaints. We don’t have a problem if ads prompts complaints, we have a problem if they regularly breach the code and they don’t.”
John Reynolds is a freelance business, media and sports journalist. Follow him on Twitter