The print ad shows a grinning man in a communion line with a bowl of onion dip that he intends to use with a communion wafer. It was developed last year as part of an $8 million campaign focusing on men behaving badly over onion dip. As first reported in the New York Post, the execution sparked an outcry from the Catholic League and Archdiocese of New York over what they called a mockery of one of the church's most sacred rites.
"The blessed sacrament is something that Catholics believe is actually the body of Christ," said a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York. "To use it in an advertisement in and of itself is offensive and to use it in the way they were suggesting makes the insult even worse."
A penitent Unilever quickly apologized and said it would stop running the ad.
But that didn't end the episode. While some of the executions began running last winter in national magazines such as O, The Oprah Magazine, the "Communion" ad debuted a week before Cannes only in the New York Press, a free alternative weekly. A few days later, Bartle Bogle won a Gold Lion in the Cannes Press & Poster competition for the ad. The agency, however, declined the award at Unilever's request as the company tried to avoid rekindling controversy, according to people familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman for the agency referred calls to the client.
"This was run just for a test I think really and subsequently led to quite a lot of consumer complaints," said Stephen Milton, a Unilever spokesman. "The people involved I think just forgot about that old dinner-party rule: Don't talk about politics or religion."
He declined to comment on whether the ad was placed solely for the purpose of qualifying for the Cannes competition. "Clearly the brand team and the agency got out of shape on this," he said. "They got a bit overly enthusiastic."
Unilever's quick move to pull the ad and apologize may repair any damage, said the spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York. "I think people will remember it, but whether people will continue to hold it against [Lipton], we'll have to wait and see. Had they not apologized so rapidly, there could have been more long-range repercussions."
"I'm pleased that [the award] was declined," said Patrick Scully, director of communications at the Catholic League. "I think that shows Unilever acted responsibly."