When Ads Offend
Provocative Commercials Get Pulled ... Unless They're About Catholics
BY Wayne Laugesen
August 24-30, 2008 Issue | Posted 8/19/08 at 1:53 PM
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.
“Corporations 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 advertising.”
The U.K. commercial, promoting Heinz mayonnaise, was quickly pulled from television after hundreds of British viewers lodged complaints.
Even 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.
It 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.
“Heinz 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.”
The 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 expression.
But 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 arises.
Catholics have had mixed success in taking on offensive ads.
“Those 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.”
What 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.
“They 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 hurt sales.”
Back 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.
Earlier 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.
“Our 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 decency.”
Wayne Laugesen is based in Monument, Colorado.
Catholics 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.
• Olympus 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.
“We 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.
• MSNBC 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.
“I 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 patients.
• 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 new processor.
• 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.
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