Ads That Insult Your Mother

Legal Seafood Ads Aren't So Funny

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
My grandfather, a carpenter, thoroughly enjoyed giving me business advice. At the top of his list was to never, ever discuss politics or religion while doing business. Being a dutiful grandson in most every other way, I've failed miserably on this account. Who knows how much business I've lost arguing against tax cuts for the wealthy. Now, I've discovered a topic even more volatile than politics or religion. I'm referring to the controversial Legal Seafood ads that are running in Boston.

Two weeks ago, one of my partners and I took two software clients to dinner before going to a Red Sox game. By my grandfather's scorecard, I did not do well. With a cold beer in one hand, I struck up a spirited debate about national politics. The clients took an unabashed McCain point of view and threw in a good dose of Hillary bashing. That was before we got into universal health coverage, energy policy and the death penalty. Still, that was nothing compared to the emotions that arose when I said that the new Legal Seafood ads were on the dumb side, in bad taste and that the company's management should pull them.

The "Fresh Fish" campaign, which is running primarily on Boston subway cars, shows cartoons of fish saying things like "This trolley gets around more than your sister" and "This conductor has a face like a halibut." A third reads, "Hey lady, I've seen smaller noses on a swordfish." Cute or offensive? The Boston Carmen's Union, which represents the subway drivers, has raised a stink, and members of the public have been offended. Of course, this is the same restaurant chain that used to sell T-shirts with the line "I got Scrod at Legal Seafood." You might argue that the company is staying on brand.

In any case, I was quickly skewered for my opinion. One client thought the campaign was wonderfully entertaining and probably very effective. The other expressed scorn at people's hypersensitivity to the slightest offense. (Living in the cradle of political correctness, I appreciated his point.) Even my partner Mike, who usually backs me up in a brawl with Republicans, thought the "Fresh Fish" concept was clever and saw nothing inappropriate about it.

Of course they were all wrong. It all comes down to a couple of principles that we teach our kids. You don't call people names, and it's a cheap shot to make fun of people for their physical appearance. It's also lame to fall back on the excuse that the campaign is all in good fun, as the spokespeople from Legal Seafood have repeatedly said. Bigotry always starts with some good-natured ribbing. Years ago, I heard a creative director use the expression "jock jokey" to refer to ads that looked like they were written by adolescent boys. These ads fit the bill.

I love freedom of speech, and I couldn't care less whether this campaign runs. It has certainly generated a heap of publicity, and I've thoroughly enjoyed the public debate. Personally, I'll always pull for advertising that taps into our better natures and shows the potential to inspire and educate. That's probably why I've enjoyed technology, health care and life-science accounts. We're introducing and promoting products that have the potential to improve how we live, and maybe even change the world. As for Legal Seafood, it still has the best chowder in town, and its fried clams aren't half bad.
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