There's No Need to Be So Sensitive

Thick Skin: Why It's Extremely Difficult to Offend the Consumer

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I once had a girlfriend who told me the only thing sensitive about me was my skin. And I'm pretty sure I get more insensitive every day. To a degree, I think, that's true for all of us.
No big deal: A potentially offensive ad for Slingbox reached about 2.3 million people -- and received no consumer complaints.
No big deal: A potentially offensive ad for Slingbox reached about 2.3 million people -- and received no consumer complaints.

Try this experiment: Turn on your TV and write down what you see. MSNBC reports 45 Iraqis are killed by an IED. Larry King interviews a 16-year-old boy who slept with his high-school teacher. A CSI specialist cuts into the body of a dead guy.

Everyone knows how bombarded we are by media. But consider for a moment how dramatic the content of all these messages is and how insensitive to this drama we've all become.

Desensitization
Remember the first time a hostage was beheaded in Iraq? It was the lead story on every news source globally. After a few more beheadings, however, the subject received second-tier coverage. The day I wrote this, the Taliban beheaded an Afghan officer, and the story was buried on CNN.com (way below a story about an armed beauty queen who thwarted some thieves).

We're talking about some serious crap here. Yet the more we see of it, the less sensitive to it we become. Who knows? It's probably a defense mechanism so we don't all go nuts simultaneously.

At this point, you are probably asking yourself what this has to do with advertising. Or my sensitive skin.

Well, as advertisers, we seem to be overly worried about offending the consumer.

Plainly put, we fear that we will tick people off and they won't buy what we're selling.

Piercing thick skin
I'm here to argue that offending the consumer is, in fact, a lot more difficult to do than we think. Because of the content they are served every day, consumers have developed a very thick skin. This increased in-sensitivity makes it extremely difficult to emotionally connect with them at all.

As advertisers, our biggest fear shouldn't have anything to do with offending these people. It should have everything to do with being ignored by them.

We once ran a half-page ad for a client, Slingbox, in USA Today. The headline boasted that Slingbox was "the best thing to happen to the business traveler since pay-per-view porn." About 2.3 million people would see this ad, and we all expected an onslaught of consumer complaints. But they never came. Not one.

Another time, we developed outdoor creative for a San Francisco radio station, Energy 92.7. We jokingly presented one concept with a headline that read, "Clubbing is no longer just for seals." (Energy plays club music.) The CEO of the station said, "Why don't we just run it and see what happens?"

See what happens? This frightened even me. An ad like that in -- of all places -- San Francisco? I feared the PETA people would track us down and burn our houses to the ground.

After a lot of discussion, we decided to run it. We agreed that we'd put the people who called to complain on the air, have an on-air discussion, a vote and ultimately let the people decide whether the billboard stayed up or came down.

Begging for trouble?
We put the board up -- a big one -- in a high-traffic location. Three days later, the CEO of the station called me. "I can't believe it," he said. "We've gotten no complaints. Not one!" He sounded annoyed. "You told me we'd get a ton of complaints."
DJ O'Neil is founder and creative director of San Francisco-based integrated marketing firm Hub Strategy, whose clients include Konami and MacGregor Golf.
DJ O'Neil is founder and creative director of San Francisco-based integrated marketing firm Hub Strategy, whose clients include Konami and MacGregor Golf.

Finally, someone did complain. But the ensuing on-air discussion ultimately ended up with the vast majority of the callers saying, "Oh, who cares? Lighten up. It's just a joke."

My point isn't that we should try to make our advertising more offensive. It's just that as advertisers, we hold ourselves to a stricter and more conservative definition of offensive than what today's audience would hold us to.

If we hamstring ourselves with an overblown fear of offending the consumer, we're truly screwed. The consumer, unlike my skin, is not nearly as sensitive as we think.

Great creative needs to be unexpected to connect emotionally with the consumer. And if we can't push to the edges, we'll be stuck in the middle. And that's not very unexpected.
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