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When that ‘humorous’ ad ain’t so funny

David St. Hubbins, the lead singer of the classic metal band Spinal Tap, may have been famously addled (not to mention fictional), but he once articulated an immortal truth that's as relevant to business as it is to rockers releasing albums with controversial covers: There's a fine line between clever and stupid.

And in an era of social media when virtual mobs can form in an afternoon to attack companies that put a single foot wrong, many marketers are discovering that advertising ideas they thought were impressively clever are actually impressively stupid.

The latest public face-plant unfolded on Wednesday, when the feminine hygiene brand Summer's Eve pulled a trio of ads for its shower wash and cleansing cloths that bloggers and other online critics had accused of racism. (Each spot featured a talking hand stand-in for the, um, lady part in question, and many people felt both the black and Latina versions were stereotypes.) After two weeks of standing firm, the company finally caved to the pressure, telling AdWeek magazine the negative comments were distracting from the "greater mission."

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There are a lot of missions running aground these days. A couple of weeks ago, the California Milk Processor Board unveiled a campaign that suggested milk could help calm the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. The insight was apparently rooted in science, but the message fell flat in part because it centred on a tongue-in-cheek website – EverythingIDoIsWrong.com – designed to help men avoid the thundering disapproval of PMS-affected women. (One image featured an apologetic-looking fellow holding three large milk cartons and the words: "I'm sorry I listened to what you said and not what you meant.") It was the thundering disapproval of bloggers and others that finally dunked the milk ads, but the agency responsible for the campaign claimed victory in defeat, saying it had kick-started an important discussion.

Which may be part of the problem: Starting conversations is now one of the most popular ways to engage consumers, because companies believe the approach will turn people into evangelists for their brands. But conversations can turn ugly without warning.

Last month, General Mills pulled a Yoplait yogurt spot that bloggers accused of encouraging eating disorders. The same fate greeted a recent campaign for Quebec's Eska Water brand which upset a number of first nations leaders by using imagery of faux first nations warriors.

And back in February, online coupon giant Groupon had the first major PR setback of its young life when it aired ads which appeared to shrug at the plight of the Tibetan people, the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest, and the potential extinction of whales. Within seconds of the Tibet ad's airing during the Super Bowl, aghast consumers attacked Groupon on Twitter and Facebook. The company insisted its ads were ironic, but when it was clear after a few days that most people didn't get the joke, the ads were pulled from YouTube. Later, Groupon announced it had fired the agency behind the campaign.

Robin Ritchie, an assistant professor of marketing at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, points out that commentary about ads used to be dominated by members of the pundit class – academics and other talking heads – which tend to treat the subject in a detached fashion. Not any more: "The masses are not detached," he notes. "If you're an aboriginal in Canada and see those Eska ads, it hits you where you feel very strongly, and you're liable to write some things on Twitter or Facebook or even via e-mail that are very strongly worded."

The first shot in the incipient battle between consumers and advertisers was fired in November of 2008, when a woman upset by a Motrin ad that appeared to mock mothers for treating their babies as fashion accessories ignited a Twitter mob over one weekend, prompting the company to pull its commercial from YouTube after just over 24 hours.

The compressed timeline forcing companies to respond within days or even hours of a complaint worries some people in the trade. Only a few years ago, agencies used to receive complaints through the mail, or hear about objections from industry watchdogs like Advertising Standards Canada.

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"I remember working with a couple of people over the years who used to say: 'If we get a couple of warning letters, that's a good thing,'" says Chad Borlase, creative director of the Toronto-based digital agency Kolody. "I don't hear that any more."

"There's a big difference between doing communication that belittles people and does actually harm people - nobody wants to do that," he agrees. But receiving a few angry letters at least means that people are paying attention. "There's a lot of stuff out there, and it's getting harder and harder to cut through in the less time that the consumer has to look at all these things."

Time was, ads which too many people found objectionable were recut and put back on television, or replaced by a milder backup ad that had been shot just in case the first one caused offence. "Nobody seems to do that any more," Mr. Borlase says.

In part, that's because of evaporating loyalty. "Often, our choice of brand is on a razor's edge," Prof. Ritchie says. "For a lot of categories, people don't care very much, and when you're making that decision, if it's top of mind that coffee company A has been controversial this week, you may choose to go to coffee company B."

Two years ago, Mr. Borlase was the co-creative director at the Toronto agency BOS when he oversaw the creation of three TV spots for the sandwich shop Mr. Su b that celebrated the chain's consistency with the statement: "Not everyone likes surprises." In one of the ads, a father informs his family that he is gay. "Like, gay gay?" asks one of his daughters. "Like, super, super gay," he replies.

Some members of the gay community thought the ad was less than super, and they hit blogs and website comment boards to weigh in. Shortly after, Mr. Sub pulled the ad and fired BOS.

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"I find Canada has got a lot more scared about this stuff," says Mr. Borlase, who moved from Johannesburg to Canada 11 years ago, "and I think it's showing in the work, for sure. I think half the problem is that marketing directors are now living in this age of reporting quarter to quarter. They're so terrified of losing [marketing] funds that they don't want to annoy anybody. It really makes them get very nervous about any sort of negative feedback."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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