In YouTube World, Humor Can Get Lost in Translation

Domestic Marketers Learn That Ads Made for Consumers Overseas Can Still Offend American Sensibilities

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- Imagine the reaction if the British determined that U.S. ads weren't sexy enough -- and saw to it that some steamier ones got aired.

Ridiculous? Maybe not so much, if you consider the situation Mars and H.J. Heinz recently found themselves in when U.S. pressure groups lobbied successfully to get their ads booted off U.K. TV. It's a lesson learned in an internet age when no ad is local anymore and clashing cultures can intrude on a global brand.
U.K.: What's wrong with this?
U.K.: What's wrong with this?

Heinz and Mars' decision to pull ads for Heinz Deli Mayo and Snickers candy bars in a country where they created no stir shows both marketers are sensitive to the threat of U.S. boycotts. But it also raises the greater issue of whether consumers who don't necessarily understand a local culture should influence what people in other countries see.

"People in the U.S. tend to be very reactive," said Gerry Moira, creative chairman of Euro RSCG, London. "Everybody there belongs to a minority -- even if there are millions of them. We must also remember that we are talking about two American brands. Perhaps the American public feels ownership of them and wants to protect them from the lascivious Europeans."

The Snickers spot shows Mr. T -- the star of 1980s TV show "The A-Team" -- disparaging a speedwalker for being "a disgrace to the man-race." He forces the guy to "run like a real man" by firing Snickers bars at him.

Only two complaints
The ad attracted only two complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, the U.K.'s regulatory body, and U.K. gay-rights groups weren't bothered by it. But thanks to internet distribution, the spot prompted the U.S. Human Rights Campaign to lobby Snickers owner Mars with complaints that it was anti-gay. The ad was swiftly taken off the air.

The HRC complained that the ad "perpetuate[d] the notion that the gay community is a group of second-class citizens and that violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is not only acceptable but humorous."

No matter that the speed walker, to British eyes at least, is in no way portrayed as gay. A spokesman for Stonewall, the U.K. gay-rights group, said the ad seemed "harmless" and that there was "no suggestion he's gay."

At the other end of the pressure-group spectrum, the American Family Association also played an important role in getting a U.K. Heinz ad yanked off the air. The ad showed a dad kissing "mom" as he left for work -- except that "mom" was a tough-talking male.

The two men's lips met on TV in the U.K., and all hell broke loose at the AFA's headquarters in Tupelo, Miss. A call for action was e-mailed to the group's 5 million members, and Heinz pulled the ad. This instigated another round of complaints, this time from gay pressure groups reacting to Heinz's "gutless" capitulation to the Christian right.

Seemingly benign
The Heinz ad did receive 213 complaints from U.K. viewers, but the Advertising Standards Authority did not see any grounds for investigating it or the Snickers ad. A spokesman said, "There was nothing in either ad that would cause serious or widespread offense or that was irresponsible."

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, London, is the agency for both Snickers and Heinz Deli Mustard.

Steve Henry, former executive creative director of TBWA, London, said marketers are themselves in danger of becoming a disgrace to the man-race. "It's a shame if you bow too much to pressure groups. It comes down to common sense and a sense of humor. ... There's always a danger of offending people."

At the same time, it's naive to assume that ads that used to be contained within national borders won't go immediately on YouTube and be treated by consumers in other countries as their own. And the internet may be a more perilous place for big multinational brands than for niche brands.

"The case of Heinz and Snickers indicates that even in these days when brands are keen to get closer to consumers, they are still seen as figures of authority, as cultural institutions which should somehow be setting an ethical moral standard for the rest of us to follow," said Ben Milligan, strategy director at digital agency Holler.

Stephen Hess, CEO of digital agency Weapon 7, said globalization on the internet should be about connecting interest groups. "It's about having discussions with like-minded individuals, not about making everyone the same."
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