When It Comes to Whining About Ads, Father Knows Best

Extremist Group's Rants Shouldn't Detract From Ways Advertising Must Be Held Accountable

By Published on .

Within 48 hours of the Super Bowl ending, a small group of extremists made it to the inboxes of Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, and Cie Nicholson, her chief marketing officer. "Interesting that Justin Timberlake can get whacked in the balls on TV and that's 'funny,'" said one of the e-mails, referring to one of the Pepsi spots that aired in the game. "If Indra and Cie were whacked in the cl*t a few times over in their lives, they would not think this ad so amusing. I'm sure all of you would frown on having a female go through the same torture in a commercial."

This lunatic tract, purporting to be from a Bill Orr, was nastier than the others, but was far from being a one-off. Indeed, several dozen such e-mails were sent to executives at Pepsi; their agency, BBDO; or publications such as Ad Age and The New York Times. Nor was this the first such assault by this gaggle of men who feel the need to defend white men against ads (mostly) by white men that sometimes portray white men as somewhat stupid or incompetent.

A loose coalition of these hombres against humor has formed in the past few years. Led by a guy called Richard Smaglick, co-founder of a group called Fathers and Husbands, they've attacked a few different ad agencies. In particular they spent several months "torturing," as one ad exec put it, Arnold Worldwide, which was considered guilty of "contemptuous depictions" of men in its ads for Fidelity Investments. The group even tried to persuade Volvo not to give its account to Arnold.

Volvo did the sensible thing -- ignored the trumped-up charges and hired the agency. But that wasn't the point for Smaglick and his acolytes. The point for them is that protesting against ads, particularly around Super Bowl time, is a cheap, easy way to get publicity. And it works, thanks to a seemingly infinite supply of journalists and bloggers (this publication and this columnist included, clearly) willing to indulge anyone with an e-mail account, a perceived slight against his person and three similarly minded internet buddies.

The media's complicity in all of this is only one of the depressing things about it. There's also the sad fact that marketers and their agencies take these people seriously, scrapping ad campaigns based on "backlash" from a dozen consumers. The fear of offending anyone anywhere at any time has contributed to the mediocrity that is TV advertising today.

Then there's the fact that the people who use such tactics undermine their own case by endlessly parsing sales material until they find something offensive. Even these dads-get-stereotyped-too groups have worthwhile issues they want to raise -- whether courts are biased against fathers in divorce cases, for example. But when they try to find hidden meaning in Justin Timberlake bumping into stuff, it's hard to see them as anything but unhinged individuals with too much time on their hands.

But the saddest thing about all this is the time and energy diverted from the more important ways advertising must be held to account. Right now, there are financial institutions with aggressive campaigns pushing credit to consumers whose debt loads are already crushing. Advertisers are spending billions to support an Olympics in a country with an abysmal human-rights record. There are companies with shocking environmental records making claims to environmental friendliness. There is a debate to be had about the merits and pitfalls of advertising drugs directly to consumers. Or, say, over whether a country that holds democracy dear should be happy its presidential primaries could come down to who spent the most on ads.

Sorry, but Justin's nuts just doesn't rank, and even these advocacy groups should be big enough to see that.
In this article:
Most Popular