Rude, Crude & Socially Unacceptable?

A couple of things converged today that got me thinking about how we — as a society and as marketers — set standards for what is considered acceptable in marketing campaigns.

I got a note from Chris Kieff at MSCO’s Unconventional Thinking pointing to an interesting and lively controversy unfolding on the blog. The company had leased two billboards leading into Manhattan from Clear Channel to promote MSCO CEO Mark Stevens’ book. The billboards simply present the book’s website address: www.YOUR MARKETING, with no other copy or graphics. Clear Channel approved the billboards, they signed the contract, and they went up with what sounds like a good response from people who want to improve their current marketing situation. Then last week, he got a call from an exec at an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway, who was irate because he said his 6-year old daughter saw the word “sucks” on the billboard, and threatened that if it was not taken down, they would “feel the full wrath of the Berkshire Hathaway empire.” A couple of days later, one of the offending billboards was covered up without any notice or explanation. When they called Clear Channel, they found out that someone in the New Rochelle Mayor’s office had called in with a complaint about the billboard, so they had pulled it.

While Mark is framing this as primarily a censorship/first amendment/abuse of corporate power issue, I’m more interested in the very important questions this story raises about what the standards should be for the marketing images and words we put out there. How do we balance promoting our messages in an attention-getting (and sometimes intentionally provocative) way with the social norms around what is acceptable and what is offensive? A debate broke out within the comments of the post between those who think there is nothing wrong with using the word “sucks,” despite its sexual origins and rude nature, and those (primarily parents) who are not comfortable with their children being exposed to the word.

The other thing that happened today is the Cartoon Network ad campaign gone very, very wrong in Boston. Traffic came to a halt as police bomb units scrambled around the city to safely detonate and remove 38 electronic circuit boards with some components that were “consistent with an improvised explosive device” left around the city on bridges, highways and subway stations. They turned out to be magnetic lights in the shape of characters from the Adult Swim animated show Aqua Team Hunger Force (appropriately, in view of the chaos they wrought, raising their middle fingers). This is a larger-scale version of the Los Angeles news rack that was blown up by the bomb squad because the device that was rigged to play the Mission Impossible theme song to promote the movie when the door was opened had fallen on top of the pile of newspapers, protruding wires and all.

Ann Handley makes the very good point:

First, market responsibly. In a post 9-11 world, it seems near crazy to tuck blinking packages with wires protruding near major municipal hubs and landmarks. Fenway Park? Sullivan Square MBTA stop? What were they thinking? Last time I went through airport security, they confiscated my 10-year-old’s SpongeBob toothpaste. That’s how crazy the world is, and unfortunately that’s the lens through which municipal leaders view any blinking devices.

There are two aspects of our marketing we need to think about that these examples illustrate – the what and the how:

  • What is the content of the images and messages? Is it worth being deliberately provocative — either in words or pictures — to get our audience’s attention? How will people outside of the target audience interpret the copy and images? What might be some of the negative consequences — to our organization or to particular segments of society — that could come from going forward with this campaign?
  • How are we going to get the message out there? What could go wrong with the execution? Is there any way that the promotion could be mistaken for something more sinister? Could the promotion have the effect of inconveniencing other people for any reason?

These are all questions that may not have a clear-cut answer, and different people will answer them in different ways for the same campaign. You will need to decide whether the risks of the campaign going wrong somehow are worth the benefits you will get by getting noticed.

Keep in mind that it’s not all about you, your organization and your product. It’s not even all about your target audience. We operate within a larger world, and we do have a responsibility to the greater society. There should be a difference between what can be done in the public commons and what can be done when it’s just between you and your adult audience.

Social marketers work with many issues that have the potential to offend various segments of society, or are not appropriate for younger children. A campaign I worked on to promote contraception by young adults had several newspapers refuse to run our ads that contained basic facts about sex and birth control, and we received a few complaints from readers of those that did run them. But we decided that the blowback was worth getting the information out to the people who needed it. While being provocative for its own sake is not always the best approach, sometimes it takes something shocking to wake people up and get them to take action. There are no clear-cut rules except to think your marketing through as well as you can before you decide to épater les bourgeois so that it doesn’t come back to kick you in the derriere later on.

Graphics/Photos:, AP

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  1. Influence through violating social norms and standards is as old as marketing itself, yet these days, takes on the weird sheen of useful backfire. Will Turner’s new program get stratospheric (free) publicity now, due to all of the negative news stories? Would be interesting to see the Neilsens on the program. I wonder where the tipping point is, in all of this? The OJ “what if” book/program was pulled as outrageous – will this also be withdrawn, or will it be catapulted? Either way, it’s a great post and gives much food for thought.

  2. Thanks, John. You’re absolutely right, and I would bet that MSCO is rejoicing at all the free publicity they are getting out of the controversy. I’m sure that many companies push the limits in the hopes of generating exactly this type of uproar and its attendant media coverage.

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