The June 2002 International Advertising Festival in Cannes may have been a financial success but it was a disaster for the ad community and for the economy that relies on advertising as the ultimate economic lubricant.
The Cannes judges' decision to honor the U.K.'s Club 18-30 Holidays "sex ads" with the press & poster Grand Prix is a setback for the ad business. The winning ads, by Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, London, cleverly but vulgarly juxtapose models to mimic sex acts, including bestiality.
It's been argued these ads are not offensive in the context of the media in which they ran or to the audience to which they were directed. Even so, honoring these ads as among the best that advertising has to offer is an embarrassment to the global advertising community. The award helps accelerate a downward spiral in taste that alienates the public and erodes audience receptivity to all advertising.
Judges have a responsibility
In 2001, DDB Worldwide Chairman Keith Reinhard, in a speech titled "De gustibus non est disputandum" ("about taste we cannot argue"), acknowledged that a Cannes jury over which he presided had disqualified an otherwise widely honored entry because of its offensive content. He reaffirmed the American Association of Advertising Agencies' code regarding content "offensive to public decency"-a theme he repeated in remarks at the 2001 American Advertising Federation national meeting. He urged all judges of ad competitions to disqualify works that violate these industry standards, and he suggested five points by which to assess entries (www.aaaa.org/transcripts/ transcripts_main.asp).
The Cannes print & poster judges this year soundly rejected his counsel. [Editor's note: A cinema ad from the same Club 18-30 campaign, which aired in the U.K. before movies restricted to audiences at least 18 years old, also won a Gold Lion.]
Puritanical Americans are not the only consumers offended by tasteless ads. In the U.K., 19% of respondents to an Advertising Standards Authority study, released in July, reported being personally offended by ads they had seen in the past 12 months, and 32% reported seeing ads they thought offensive to others. Last year in Berlin, Metro AG had to remove 15,000 posters of a woman with three breasts due to protests, mostly from women. Belgium's ad ethics committee reported that complaints about discourteous ads surged 61% in 2000 to 239, 79% of them from consumers. In May last year, a French parliamentary roundtable was convened to address widespread airing of TV ads that outraged conservative family groups and feminist activists. The French Truth in Advertising Commission pulled a number of racy ads.
Advertising standards are first and foremost a practical matter. David Ogilvy, Ogilvy & Mather's legendary founder, put it succinctly: "Advertising should be true, credible and pleasant. People do not buy from bad-mannered liars." Ill-mannered and misleading ads hurt not only the advertiser. Tasteless ads are commercial graffiti and tarnish the media that carry them. They undermine the social order, which is based on mutual respect and trust. They diminish the effectiveness of all advertising and media.
Has the spate of offensive advertising deepened the current slump in ad spending? In March last year, Rance Crain, Advertising Age's editor in chief, observed, "... [The] dot-com advertising outburst did colossal damage to advertising's reputation among the nation's CEOs ... so pointless, so tasteless, so stupid that it shook the faith of corporate chieftains in the power of advertising."
The advertising community has a responsibility to the public and a vested interest in discouraging the kind of ads honored at Cannes this year. The organizers and judges of this year's festival owe the ad community an apology, and a promise to uphold the common standards of taste and decency in advertising that are closely replicated by the codes of ad organizations around the world. It is time for ad associations in every country to renew and to reaffirm their established standards.
Advertising's ability to fulfill its mission depends on advertisers demonstrating respect for the public, winning its trust in return. Just as fraudulent balance sheets have chilled investor sentiment, offensive ads lower consumer receptivity to all advertising. It is urgent that we pledge, as a business community, to stop poisoning our own well, squandering advertising's social capital.
Advertising awards programs are expected to elevate and to lead the advertising industry. They must uphold standards. Must we suffer a consumer, business and governmental backlash before the current downward trend is reversed? This will be a heavy price for the our industry's failure to exercise creative self-control and good business judgment. n
Kirk Carr is advertising services director, The Wall Street Journal, New York, and past chairman of the Business Marketing Association. In July 2000, the Journal hosted major advertising and print media associations and Mr. Carr urged them to reaffirm and better define standards for taste and decency in advertising.