BE CAREFUL, BUT DON'T LET FEAR PARALYZE YOU

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Tom Darbyshire

Who in America doesn't know this tune?

Hot dogs! Armour hot dogs!

What kind of kids eat Armour hot dogs?

Fat kids! Skinny kids!

Kids who climb on rocks!

Tough kids! Sissy kids!

Even kids with chicken pox love hot dogs!

Armour hot dogs!

The dogs kids love to bite!

You and I might not consider it inspired advertising. But you gotta admit, it's darned catchy. As infectious as a nasty cold, and just as hard to get out of your head.

Now, I can't name the writer who penned it, the agency that sold it or the client that approved it. But I have a good guess how that presentation might go in these PC (Pathetically Correct) days.

"Love it," the client says. "Darned catchy. Nails our strategy."

Everyone resumes breathing. Sold.

"Just a couple of minor noodles," the client says.

"To begin with, that line about fat kids-we can't use the word fat. It could imply that hot dogs make kids fat. Besides, the weight-challenged members of our audience might take offense.

"Ditto for skinny. Too derogatory. Besides, our chairman's daughter is anorexic.

"And that bit about kids who climb on rocks-that'll never clear legal. Some kid will fall off a rock and his parents will sue us for encouraging him.

"We can't talk about tough kids either, not with all the violence in the schools.

"Same goes for sissy kids. If we sing that while showing a little girl, feminists will claim we're perpetuating a stereotype. If we show a boy instead, the gay lobby will have us by the ball .*.*. er, um .*.*. I mean throat.

"And it's unappetizing to mention diseases in a food spot, so lose that bit about chicken pox.

"You'll also need to fix that tag, `the dog kids love to bite.' Clever. But animal rights supporters will say we're encouraging kids to abuse their pets.

"But, hey, other than those few nits, it's a home run!"

Sound familiar? Of course.

Are the client's fears ridiculous? Of course.

But are they unwarranted? Sadly, the answer is no.

We recently created a radio spot with a gag suggesting that listening to three days of accordion music might be tiresome. Our client promptly received a complaint from the Accordion Players Association.

We did a TV spot featuring a live chicken sporting a large pair of human ears (which looked, quite unintentionally, a lot like Ross Perot). A distraught woman phoned to tell us it was undoing her years in therapy for bird-phobia.

We did a TV spot set at the Pearly Gates to make the point that our fast-food client served heavenly fare while flame-broiling was something done at the "other place." We got diatribes from zealots who wanted us to know that "hell is a place of eternal torment and no laughing matter."

The list goes on.

None of our ads was offensive by reasonable standards. Yet, all of them offended someone. America has become a nation of whiners. (And I'm whining about it right now.)

Fortunately, my agency is blessed with some remarkably courageous clients, and with their help we've developed guidelines for dealing with the hair-trigger sensibilities of PC America.

1. You needn't be offensive to communicate. Pure shock value is appropriate for very few products and wears thin quickly, a lesson Madonna could stand to learn.

2. On the other hand, don't let fear of offending paralyze your advertising. You can't predict what will make somebody's knee jerk, so don't try. If you write with the hypersensitive fringe in mind, they become your de facto target audience. The result is advertising so bland it gets no reaction of any sort from your real target.

3. Treat complaints with respect. Write a personal response. Apologize. Promise to be more considerate in the future. Their feelings may seem absurd, but they are real.

4. Send coupons for free products. Every time we've done this, the coupons have been redeemed, even though the offended party swore never to use the product again.

5. Follow up. Surprisingly, the act of complaining and receiving a kind reply involves people with your product. They feel they had an effect and become loyal users. This knowledge makes gun-shy clients more courageous.

6. Don't fear publicity. If the complaint is ridiculous, the average Joe will empathize with you. Consider it free PR. In fact, if the media schedule is almost over, you can pull the ad and inform the press. Our infamous "Lunch Ladies" TV spot for Roy Rogers featured school cafeteria workers happily presenting trays of mystery meat to the tune "See You in September." The VO reminded kids that only a few days of summer remained for lunch at Roy's. We ran it three years in a row. Each year, the cafeteria workers union complained. Each year, we apologized and pulled it off the air early. Each year, the press wrote it up and the public ate it up.

7. Keep a sense of humor. That's the root of this problem, anyway. Modern society is too serious. Without humor, life becomes a place of eternal torment and no laughing matter, which is, I've been told, the definition of hell.

Mr. Darbyshire is creative director of Earle Palmer Brown's Bethesda, Md., office. He apologizes in advance for any unintentional offense this article might cause. He will try to be more considerate in the future.

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