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Provocative Commercials Get Pulled ... Unless They're About Catholics
BY Wayne LaugesenREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — When the H.J.
Heinz Co. ran a recent TV ad in the U.K. featuring homosexual family life, it
evoked outrage in Europe and the United States. A male couple was seen kissing
on the lips, and a child in the household referred to one of the men as “mum.”
The ad didn’t inspire many sales,
and instead, launched a powerful revolt among consumers.
In the United States and throughout
the world, ads are pulled from print, TV and radio every week in response to
consumer complaints about offensive content.
More and more, says a spokesman for
the Catholic League, ads are designed to insult Catholics — a group she said
comprises a safe target for bigotry. Still, Catholics have had recent and past
success at getting offensive ads pulled.
often want to push social agendas in their advertising, but mostly they want to
sell products,” said Susan Fani, director of communication for the Catholic
League. “If making social or political points is going to hurt product sales,
it gets their attention pretty fast. Ultimately, the bottom line is what
matters — and that’s why it’s important to speak out regarding offensive
U.K. commercial, promoting Heinz mayonnaise, was quickly pulled from television
after hundreds of British viewers lodged complaints.
though the commercial wasn’t aired in the United States, the Tupelo,
Miss.-based American Family Association, which defends traditional family
values, also complained about the ad — and demanded that Heinz pull the ad. The
demise of the Heinz ad came after the family-values association sent an “action
alert” e-mail to about 3.5 million subscribers.
asked recipients to contact Heinz with complaints, and to forward the e-mail to
friends and relatives. The action alert was so successful that complaints
bogged the computer system at Heinz, said Cindy Roberts, director of media and
public relations for the American Family Association.
pulled the ad in the U.K. because our consumer research showed that it failed
in its attempt to be humorous and offended people on all sides,” said Michael
Mullen, director of global corporate affairs for Heinz, in an official
statement. “Heinz apologizes for its misplaced attempt at humor and we accept
that this ad was not in accordance with our long-standing corporate policy of
respecting everyone’s rights and values.”
decision, and the statement, has resulted in a backlash by homosexuals who are
offended that Heinz pulled the ad. Some critics have likened the consumer
demands for decency to “censorship,” which involves government restraint of
it’s not just Christian and family-values organizations that object to ad
content. Racial and ethnic groups, people with disabilities, people from China
and Colombia, and even train engineers have balked in recent years at ads they
found offensive. Most ads are quickly removed the moment an organized complaint
have had mixed success in taking on offensive ads.
who claim to be tolerant above all else seem to be intolerant of Catholicism,”
Fani said. “That may be because the Church takes strong moral stands regarding
sexuality, and this society wants a more lenient approach to sexuality. The
Church represents opposition to much of what commerce wants to promote.”
companies often want to promote is the idea that products will make consumers
sexy, or result in casual sexual activity. Years ago, Fani recalls, the Catholic
League balked when the clothing company United Colors of Benetton, a brand of
the Benetton Group, ran ads with an actor dressed as a priest, trying to kiss
an actor dressed as a nun.
wanted to provoke controversy,” Fani said. “That’s not usually the case with
offensive ads. I don’t think Heinz was trying to generate a controversy. They
were trying to be humorous, and it didn’t work. Though it was an attempt at
humor, I think most people perceived a subtext, involving an effort by the
company to use humor to promote homosexual ‘marriage.’ It wasn’t taken as
funny, and most companies don’t want a controversy so unpopular that it will
in 2001, the Catholic League asked Unilever to pull an ad that promoted Lipton
soup. The ad featured a priest holding a host. A person waiting for Communion
had a bowl of Lipton onion dip, suggesting plans to dunk the host in the dip.
Catholic League president William Donohue blasted the company for demeaning the
Eucharist. The company withdrew the ad and apologized to Catholics.
this year, both the New York-based Catholic League and the Catholic Action
League of Massachusetts criticized the Equinox Fitness Club in Boston for an ad
that depicts nuns sketching a naked man. C.J. Doyle, president of the Catholic
Action League, told TheBostonChannel.com that the ad shows contempt for
Catholicism. The fitness company continued to run the ad — and defend it.
ad campaigns are based on personal motivation and fantasy, and throughout
history the body has been considered a form of art,” stated the company’s
official written response.
In 2005, Vatican officials
complained when a full-page ad in Italian newspapers and magazines celebrating
PlayStation’s 10th anniversary depicted a young man wearing a crown of thorns.
Beneath the picture were the words “dieci anni di passione,”
Latin for “10 years of passion.” Sony pulled the ad and apologized.
“That’s when we pulled the plug on
videogames in our home,” said Ed Navarro, a Denver Catholic who read about the
Italian ad campaign. “I had concerns about our kids playing videogames too much
anyway. Then it seemed to me that PlayStation was mocking Catholics. That was
it for all videogames in this house.”
Josh Harden, a corporate attorney in
Missouri, said he tries to avoid doing business with companies that use
anti-Catholic ads, or ads with messages that boldly offend Catholic morality.
But he worries that some companies try to provoke Catholic organizations in
order to generate free press, because Catholics are fair game.
“Sometimes a company wants the
publicity of a controversy, and you do run the risk of aiding them when you
express objection,” Fani said. “But if we do not express our objection, then
it’s perceived as okay, and standards are lowered. It can be a bit of a
double-edged sword, but it’s important that consumers define the boundaries of
Wayne Laugesen is based in Monument, Colorado.
can take offense at a litany of ads that offend their religion or values, but
other offended groups get quick apologies. Some examples:
• An ad for Snickers during the 2007 Super Bowl
offended homosexuals. It featured two men, eating opposite ends of a Snickers
bar. As their mouths nearly met in the middle, the two men expressed revulsion
at having accidentally come so close to kissing. The ad was discontinued with a
corporate apology from Mars, Inc.
America Inc. insulted paramedics and emergency medical technicians with an ad
in 2006 that featured EMTs stealing a camera from an unconscious patient. The
National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians complained, and Olympus
pulled the ad with an apology.
believe that emergency response personnel are recognized as some of the most
honorable people in our society. Please share our apology with your members,”
said the official Olympus statement.
apologized recently for advertising an episode of the show “Hardball.” The
show’s guest was Michelle Obama, and she was depicted with background
silhouettes of female dancers, and the phrase “her new outlook?” The official
statement: “The artwork should not have been used, it was inappropriate.”
• A Japanese cell phone company apologized
and pulled an ad that used a monkey to depict Barack Obama, who’s multiracial.
The ad offended black people and others.
• In 2000, Nike offended people with spinal
injuries. An ad for shoes that were supposed to help athletes avoid injuries
said the shoe could help a runner “avoid compressing my spinal cord into a
Slinky on the side of some unsuspecting conifer, thereby rendering me a
drooling, misshapen non-extreme-trail-running husk of my former self, forced to
roam the earth in a motorized wheelchair with my name embossed on one of those
cute little license plates you get at carnivals or state fairs …” After
receiving complaints, Nike discontinued the print ad and apologized.
was horrified by that ad,” said Amy Sanchez, a former hiker who had been paralyzed
from the waist down in a car accident a year before the ad showed up in Backpacker
magazine. “I was reading a magazine I enjoy and ended up seeing something that
made me feel sub-human.”
Marriott International, Inc., offended people with thyroid problems when it ran
an ad in 2000 that bemoaned the discomforts of being seated on an airline next
to someone with a thyroid condition. Thyroid problems can lead to morbid
obesity. A virtual community for thyroid patients, hosted on About.com, protested
the ad. It was pulled with an apology.
• During the 2008 Super Bowl, Chinese
Americans were offended when an ad by Salesgenie.com featured cartoon pandas
speaking with Chinese accents. The ad was discontinued, with an apology from
Vinod Gupta, president of Salesgenie.com’s parent company.
• Mozilla apologized recently for an ad that
offended cancer patients. The ad joked that users of Mozilla’s Firefox software
were 23% less likely to have cancer, and 20% less likely to live with cancer
• Guess Inc., a clothing company, offended
Colombians with a T-shirt ad that said “Ski Colombia: Always Plenty of Fresh
Powder.” Colombians complained that it suggested Colombia is mostly about
cocaine. The shirt was discontinued.
• Intel Corp. offended black men with an ad
featuring six black male runners amid a white man in a suit. Company officials
pulled the ad, explaining they were merely trying to convey the speed of its
• The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and
Trainmen demanded removal of an ad about global warming that was sponsored by
the Ad Council.
The TV ad depicted the
theoretical threat of global warming with a young girl standing on railroad
tracks with a train speeding toward her. Dan Hahs, president of the
brotherhood, told the Ad Council that train engineers suffer post-traumatic
stress syndrome from the deaths they cause: “Nearly every single member of the
BLET has been or will be involved in some sort of fatal train accident during
his or her railroad career.” Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council,
dismissed the complaint.