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Is all publicity good publicity? Weighing the risks of shock advertising

The Advertising Standards Authority is proud of the high level of compliance with the Advertising Code. This is all the more impressive considering that its primary sanction is negative PR, rather than fines. So following the ASA’s recent publication of the 10 most complained about ads of the last 12 months, there is a question to be asked: did any of these advertisers suffer long term consequences by provoking hundreds of complaints? Or was it just transient, short-term negative publicity?

Paddy Power's much complained about Pistorius advert

In 2014, Paddy Power achieved the dubious distinction of garnering 5,525 complaints, demolishing the previous record. The online bookmaker has a track record of successfully pushing the boundaries of acceptable bad taste. But it misjudged the public mood with a press ad that sought to find a humorous angle on the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, combining gags about disability, murder and Hollywood’s annual Oscar jamboree.

Although the long-term impact for Paddy Power seems to be limited, it appears that its 'head of mischief' has been exercising rather more discretion in the 12 months since the furore. Evidence, perhaps, of a self-denying ordinance.

Charities have long since exploited the benefits of 'shockvertising' to bolster their limited media budgets. Save the Children achieved fifth position in the ASA’s most recent top 10 with a commercial that spawned 614 complaints. It portrayed a woman giving birth in Africa and highlighted the need for trained midwives to reduce post-natal fatalities. The number of complaints is surprising, given the post 9pm scheduling restriction.

Overall, however, the charity benefitted from the ASA’s investigation, with three rounds of publicity for its cause: first when the commercial aired; second with the media attention when the complaints were generated; and third with the ultimate vindication when the complaint was not upheld. In this case, the added bonus is yet another round of publicity from the publication of the top 10 list, and yet another reminder about the need for those midwives.

But campaigning groups have another trick up their sleeves: using advertising to shine a light on their own issues.

A particularly interesting example comes from this year’s bronze medal winner in the ASA’s list. In November 2014, News UK managed to secure a scorching 1,036 complaints about an e-mail campaign for The Sun’s Dream Team fantasy football game, which offered a date with the Page 3 model as a prize.

The ASA’s complaint report states that ‘many’ of these complaints resulted from a campaign by SomeOfUs.org, who argued that the prize was sexist and objectified women. This is fascinating, because most complaints about sexism and objectification of women concern posters of women wearing little or no lingerie, but The Sun’s e-mail featured no objectionable imagery, and purely concerned a point of principle.

SomeOfUs.org describes itself as “fighting for people, not profits” on campaigns on a wide variety of issues, including the environment, poverty and women’s rights. It’s reasonable to assume that the members of the ASA Council are rather less radical in their views than the organisers of the SomeOfUs.org and the ASA is traditionally anxious to avoid being hijacked by campaigners for their own ends.

But on this occasion, the ASA Council agreed that the promotion was sexist and objectified women. And then in January 2015 came the announcement that The Sun was ending Page 3! However, as this was quickly followed by a retraction, delivered by a topless model, it would be wise not to overstate the impact of the ASA’s decision.

American Apparel does not feature in the top 10 list, but deserves a special place in this discussion. Its founder, Dov Charney, was responsible for some truly despicable advertising. Some showed excessively skinny women, but arguably even worse was the imagery that was borderline pornographic, playing on the worst kind of male sexual fantasies about schoolgirls. This was banned by the ASA, but exposed the limitations of its power to control offensive advertising.

Happily, however, the objectionable Mr Charney was fired by the company in December 2014, and replaced by Paula Schneider, its first female boss, who said: “[Our advertising] doesn’t have to be overtly sexual. There’s a way to tell our story where it’s not offensive."

Another relevant example can perhaps be seen in the ASA’s ban on an advert from mobile phone company Kazam which was condemned for its objectification of women. The ASA’s action prompted one of its leading brand ambassadors Camilla Hansson, the current Miss Sweden, to quit.

So for most advertisers the negative PR attached to the occasional offensive advertising will be short lived, and may be ‘good publicity’ after all. But regular condemnation on certain issues, particularly involving sexualisation of children or violence to women, is bound to have adverse consequences for advertisers, particularly as collateral for more widely cast criticisms of a brand.

Brinsley Dresden is a partner and head of advertising at the law firm Lewis Silkin LLP

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