Marketers Need to Stand Up to Hysteria From the Outrage Nuts

Recent Spat of Advertiser Retreats Underscores Problem

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In 1960 Doyle Dane Bernbach launched a campaign for a Brooklyn rye-bread baker with a series of subway posters that read, "You don't have to be Jewish to
Could the classic Levy's Real Jewish Rye ad campaign of the 1960s survive in today's environment of blog-driven anti-advertising hysteria? | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Could the classic Levy's Real Jewish Rye ad campaign of the 1960s survive in today's environment of blog-driven anti-advertising hysteria? | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
love Levy's." The posters depicted people of various ethnic groups enjoying the bread and, as Ad Age reported at the time, drew plenty of complaints from people who didn't like the ethnic approach.

Levy's classic
As part of the campaign, Bernbach also told the company to change its name from Levy's Real Rye to Levy's Real Jewish Rye. When the marketer expressed fear that this might invite controversy or pigeonhole the brand, Bernbach brooked no argument: "For God's sake, your name is Levy's. They are not going to mistake you for high Episcopalian." The campaign spurred a decade of sales growth for the baker and passed into popular culture.

Today those ads probably wouldn't make it to a subway wall, and if they did they'd be stripped off at the first sign of someone crying "anti-Semitism" or "Zionism" or whatever "ism" the complainer-in-chief dreamed up to dignify his personal crusade. You even wonder whether Messrs. Doyle, Dane and Bernbach could have likened a dud VW to a lemon, as they did in another famous ad, without incurring the wrath of the lemon-growers association.

Do I exaggerate? Not on this occasion. Just last weekend we learned that a nationwide crew of librarians, whom I tend to think of as generally sensible folk with an interest in education and a penchant for vocabulary, are banning the award-winning children's book, "The Power Of Lucky," because it contains the word scrotum. Perhaps they'd prefer the playground favorite, ball bag.

Nationwide and Snickers
This nutty censorship episode followed a fortnight in which a series of ads was attacked, and some taken off the air, for an assortment of offenses. Nationwide's spot featuring Kevin Federline was shot down by the National Restaurant Association for being a demeaning portrayal of a life flipping burgers. The Snickers spot, when it wasn't upsetting homophobes (too pro-gay) and ad critics (it was a truly crap spot), was upsetting homosexuals (too anti-gay).

And then there was the suicide collective, a trifecta of ads using the "I'll kill myself if I can't get one of those" metaphor. They were slammed for making light of such a sad subject.

Even GM was forced to edit one of its ads, an entertaining spot from Deutsch, because it featured a robot that jumped off a bridge after losing its job. The Foundation for Suicide Prevention demanded an apology and that GM undertake "steps to inform the public about mental illness and suicide." Presumably it meant in humans, not robots.

Edgier advertising?
All this sparked the inevitable rash of articles suggesting a trend toward edgier advertising, a theory that conveniently ignores 50 years of creatives courting controversy and trying to capture the cultural leading edge. Every generation finds mores to mess with; that's not new. Nor is it new to find marketers caving at the first sign of criticism, their default desire being to please everyone all the time.

What has changed is that we now live in a culture of instantly disseminated opinion. There are few fact-finders anymore, and everything in the public domain is instantly spread and dissected by a blog-buoyed media that is more about commentary than reporting. One guy with a web connection can create quite a fuss about something he doesn't like, particularly if he starts by founding a powerful-sounding organization.

In such a world, marketers have to accept that they won't please all the people all the time. Even advertisers who don't think they're using consumer-generated media have to accept that messages are likely to be mashed up, reinterpreted, parsed and criticized. Consumers, as is repeated endlessly, are in control. Of course, that also means they know where to find the off switch if they don't like what they're hearing.
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