Unfortunately, it's also a story of how an infinitesimal fraction of a population-be it ye olde lunatic fringe or those simply born with a humor deficiency-can rain on a joyous parade. Take the case of Jonathan Kneebone and Dave Johnson, a copywriter and art director working on their first big job for Young & Rubicam/Sydney since they'd left Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury in London. It was springtime in Australia, and the two had been instructed to get a campaign on air by summer that would create maximum impact for Colgate Palmolive's UV sunscreen on a limited budget. The one-word brief was "Protection."
The team's idea: To celebrate the black man's abundance of protective melanin, gently poke fun at the lack of it in whites, and tout UV as "The next best thing to being black." They came up with three storyboards, one funnier than the next.
"When we're out in the sun, we're all at the mercy of Mother Nature," intones the Caribbean presenter in one spot, surrounded by other blacks in a sunny back yard. "But think about it: To get the protection that the black man has naturally, the white man needs a sunscreen like UV. So .*.*. Mother Nature must be black!" Unable to contain themselves, the guys fall about laughing. The tag: "For whites who want equality."
In another spot, the presenter, played by Ron Bobb-Semple, actually a personality on a Caribbean cable channel in the U.S., cracks everyone up when he puts UV on the soles of his feet. And, in a third commercial, heralded with, "This message is for whites," a pale- and poker-faced presenter warns us of the perils of the sun for those with "precious little melanin." A title card then appears reading "This message is for blacks," immediately followed by Bobb-Semple crowing, "We got loads of melanin!" before a mini-Caribbean festival ensues under the sun. All were shot by Aussie director John Curran of Pod Films in Sydney.
"We thought there was something very bizarre about having someone laughing at white people's expense," Kneebone said right before the campaign broke. "But it's a really strong message about how good the product is-that a white person with this sunscreen is as well protected as a black."
He and Johnson were excited about the campaign, as well they should have been. Personally presenting the scripts to their cautious Colgate clients while apologizing for their faux Caribbean accents, the creatives managed to convince them to go with the campaign. "The charm of the idea captured their imaginations," Johnson said at the time.
Not so all of the viewers. Australia's Advertising Standards Council received a "handful" of letters of protest, some from whites who considered the ads racist, and a couple from blacks who complained that the ads would make blacks think they can't get burned from the sun's rays, when in fact they can. But, before the ASC could even make a ruling about it, Colgate's head office in New York stepped in and ordered the spots off the air. Since UV is marketed in Australia only, the campaign had managed to slip through those notorious corporate levels of approval that creatives fear and loathe, and the head office was not pleased, issuing a rather severe statement about global advertising standards not being met.
Y&R stands by the spots in spite of the slap on the wrist. "We've received many letters and faxes in support of the ads at the agency," says creative director Neil Lawrence. "Indeed, we've been overwhelmed by the public sentiment in favor of them." In fact, last month the ASC dismissed complaints about the ads, saying they considered the work "a humorous and interesting way of communicating an issue of concern." Colgate officials, however, have not indicated whether the campaign will be reinstated.
Also under attack, but ostensibly faring better so far than UV, is a commercial for Lever Rexona's new Domestos spray bathroom cleaner out of Ammirati & Puris/Lintas in Sydney, which is a takeoff on the popular Aussie hit film about drag queens, "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."
Indeed, you might think you were seeing a trailer for "Priscilla II: The Return," as the statuesque blond Bernadette character-uncannily reminiscent of Terence Stamp, who played the part in the film-steps off the bus to powder his/her nose at a typically grungy Outback pub. You can hear a fly buzz in the silence among the yobbo types as she makes her entrance, decked out in a white skirt-and-sweater set and matching accessories, but she does get the odd smile and even a once-over.
The hook becomes obvious only when she visits the appallingly filthy loo, whips a bottle of Domestos spray out of her purse and has the bathroom sparkling in barely more time than it takes to bat her false eyelashes. "Fit for a queen!" she replies smugly when the commercial's Mitzi character back at the bus asks her how the ladies' room was.
Copywriter Nicki Mortimer and art director Gordon Higgins came up with the engaging scenario, which manages to successfully straddle the line between entertainment and the hard sell. And Michael McLaren, the agency's client service director, pointed out that the idea was a natural for Domestos, for which Lintas has been executing problem/solution scenarios since 1982. The last one, in 1993, featured an Indiana Jones type discovering a decrepit Roman bath and transforming it with the spray.
The launch of a new Domestos product was all the more reason for the agency to take further creative license. And the Bernadette character, unorthodox as she was, made sense because she was fastidious, like the Domestos target audience. Added McLaren before the commercial broke, "The Bernadette character in the movie had integrity and strength of character. This is not a direct correlation, but Domestos has always had a lot of integrity."
In fact, the client is fond of praising Domestos as "a John Wayne of a brand," although now that they've remade the Duke as a duchess one isn't sure just what he's saying, pilgrim. Agency folks say he felt better after seeing the film the spot was based on, but he still expressed reservations, along with others in the client group. Art director Higgins recalls at the pitch, "They all said, 'This is not what we expected, and transvestites don't seem to fit in with our product. But if it researches well, we'll go with it.'*"
It did, and they did. Not only did no one in research groups find the idea offensive, but it was "greeted with universal delight," McLaren reports. Lintas hired director Lynne Hegarty of Self-Made Shade in Sydney, and stage actor Val Gorecki, donning drag for the first time, was cast as Bernadette.
It seemed that all was blessed with a happy ending, until an ultra-right politician from the tropical Australian state of Queensland, running for the Senate, recently attacked the poor Priscilla commercial from his platform of morality and family values. As is standard procedure in these cases, the ASC must investigate. "We're always concerned when these sorts of issues come up," says account man McLaren. "But we feel pretty confident that it's not reflective of the opinion of the public at large."
Referring to the 1993 bathroom spot with the Indiana Jones character, he adds,