Who's to Blame When an Ad Incites Anger?

Understanding Clients' Risk Tolerance Is Key to Role as Adviser

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Recently, a new ad for the snack brand Popchips, featuring Ashton Kutcher in ethnic dress and brown makeup, was pulled by the brand after allegations of racism. If my description of the incident sounds conspicuously nonjudgmental, it's intentional: This article isn't about the validity or severity of the purported faux pas, but rather the roles that clients and their agencies play in creating and responding to these mishaps.

The Popchips kerfuffle is hardly unprecedented. Early in my career, I took a job at an agency that had produced a Super Bowl spot for a sneaker retailer called Just For Feet. During my first week, the executive creative director invited me into a small conference room to show me the 30 seconds of film he hoped would launch the agency and its client into the public spotlight. And the day the ad first aired -- during the fourth quarter of a relatively forgettable game -- that 's exactly what happened.

The Just For Feet commercial, featuring a barefoot Kenyan runner who is tracked by military men in a Humvee, drugged, and forced to wear sneakers against his will, was declared: "Appallingly insensitive," by the New York Times; "neo-colonialist ... culturally imperialist, and probably racist," by Ad Age ; and "unacceptable and shockingly unprofessional," by Harold Ruttenberg -- the CEO of Just For Feet.

That last quote, however, wasn't part of an apology Mr. Ruttenberg was issuing on behalf of his company; it was part of the first-ever advertising malpractice suit he was filing against his agency.

Mr. Ruttenberg's suit went on to claim that the agency, "...assured Just for Feet that the commercial ... would be well-received by the public." In statements designed to assuage the backlash, he told the press, "We said 'no.' They said 'yes.' They said they knew better. And we are prepared to swear that under oath."

The truth, as everyone who works in this business knows, is that launching a campaign is like launching a nuclear missile: both the agency and the client have to turn their key. To place the blame entirely on the agency is to ignore the realities and responsibilities of being a client. And since an agency has little choice but to refer the press to the client when a campaign goes awry, it's unfair for the client to implicate the agency.

Of course, agencies are hardly innocent bystanders when such events unfold. So what, exactly, are an agency's responsibilities in these instances? And, perhaps more critically, how can agencies help clients avoid them in the first place?

Part of the answer may be as simple as establishing and respecting a client's tolerance for risk.

Risk tolerance is a phrase most commonly used in the investing world; it's how financial advisors match their clients with the products that best suit them. Prefer stability even if it limits growth potential? Put your money in a CD. Comfortable with the possibility of big losses if it means the opportunity for big gains? Invest in stocks. We're all familiar with the concept, but rarely apply it to our industry.

Agencies talk a lot about "pushing clients out of their comfort zone," and use sound bites like, "if it doesn't make you nervous, you shouldn't be running it." These sentiments are both valid, but only to a degree; when clients get pushed too far out of their comfort zone, and when creative work makes them more nervous than enthused, an agency's failure to respect its clients' risk tolerance constitutes negligence.

There's a meaningful difference between pushing your clients and imposing your will on them: the former involves the thoughtful, nuanced process of helping clients gain a new perspective, the latter involves bullying them until they concede. Agencies are likely to be better served by the former. It may not win them as many creative awards, but it could save them from losing a few clients.

Arguably, advertising that can be perceived as culturally insensitive should never be proposed, even if it is within a client's comfort zone. So consider an ad like the Paris Hilton "car wash" spot created for Carl's Jr. in 2005 as another example of understanding a client's risk tolerance: what worked for Carl's Jr. would likely cause a brand like McDonald's considerable discomfort.

Several months ago, I went so far as to present a client with an actual "risk-tolerance continuum" in an effort to collectively and visually establish how far they wanted to deviate from the marketing conventions of their industry. It was an eye-opening process for everyone involved, and has influenced our approach to their business ever since.

I don't know the people who were at Just For Feet in 1999, so it's hard to say whether the aforementioned Super Bowl spot was aligned with their risk tolerance. Regardless, it should serve as a lesson for any agency that confuses "pushing" clients with advising them: after all, it's tough for clients to pat you on the back while you're twisting their arm.

Mike Wolfsohn is co-founder and chief creative officer at High Wide & Handsome. You can follow him on Twitter at @Mike_Wolfsohn

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