The inside story of 'banned' TV commercials
Little-known company Frida Mom became a household name last week when it said its commercial showing the physical realities of what women endure following childbirth was "banned" from ABC’s broadcast of the Academy Awards.
Frida Mom’s ad, which had already been running online, shows a new mom with postpartum underwear pulled down, sitting on a toilet bowl, very obviously in pain, changing a sanitary pad, while her newborn cries in the background. The company re-posted the spot last week saying it was "rejected" by the network, a move that ignited viewer outrage over the alphabet network’s decision and garnered accolades (and plenty of publicity) for Frida.
This isn't the first time a marketer got attention for a similar reason. "Banned" ads naturally attract buzz because people want to see a commercial that a network won't air. The hype can almost be more intense (and less costly) than if the commercial ran sans-drama in the broadcast.
For the networks, the decision to reject any piece of creative—or to ask for modifications, as ABC says it did—is more complex than simply deeming a message or product inappropriate. As more companies like Frida push the boundaries of their creative in an effort to change mindsets, TV networks are now tasked with applying long-standing guidelines to these situations. Sometimes, the decision is obvious, but in other cases the issues aren't as clear.
Frida Mom Chief Marketing Officer Eric Hirschhorn (and a former Burger King CMO) said the ad was submitted to the network through its media agency. According Hirschhorn, ABC replied and asked if Frida Mom had another product to advertise or “kinder, gentler creative.” The issue, according to Hirschhorn, was the use of partial nudity and frank demonstration of the company's postpartum care products.
“While we are deeply supportive and respectful of a potential client's creative vision, the brand was told the ad did not meet broadcast guidelines," said an ABC spokesperson. "We asked for edited or alternative creative, which is common practice, but they did not come back with a revised version.”
Frida says it didn’t want to make these changes. “To suggest we refine the content for a more culturally sensitive audience would have pandered to outdated broadcast television policies and is the antithesis of our our mission to prepare women for the reality of postpartum recovery,” Chelsea Hirschhorn, CEO and founder of Frida (and wife of Eric Hirschhorn), said in an email.
It's far from uncommon for TV networks to ask for edits on creative. SodaStream had to remove images of then-rivals Coke and Pepsi from the ads it originally submitted for the 2013 and 2014 Super Bowl. 84Lumber couldn’t air a spot in the 2017 Super Bowl that depicted a border wall. GoDaddy also had to undergo edits of at least several of its Super Bowl commercials that used raunchy humor or featured scantily dressed women.
Only last year, another feminine hygiene marketer, Thinx, the maker of period underwear, had to edit its TV commercial that envisioned a world where men also got their period. The spot showed bloodstains on a bed and a tampon string hanging out of a man’s underwear. Many of the TV networks took issue with the tampon string and asked Thinx for another version of the ad that removed the image. Thinx complied with the request. None of the TV networks allowed blood in the ad. Historically, blood in commercials featuring pads or tampons has been replaced with a blue-colored liquid.
It is unclear if Frida Mom’s media agency informed the company it may run afoul of network guidelines going into the process, if the company expected the ad would be rejected when it was submitted, or whether that may even have been a part of its strategy. But the company is clear in its vision of trying to make the conversation around its products authentic and real. Chelsea Hirschhorn said that "it's important to expose the guardrails and limitations imposed on advertisers by these broadcast networks in an effort to find a home for the type of content we created.”
While it isn’t in Frida Mom’s budget to regularly advertise on TV, Chelsea Hirschhorn said she does see the medium “as an accelerator for the next phase of growth for the business.” And the Oscars was attractive because “it presents a unique cultural opportunity with 18 million women captivated by an evening that awards storytelling at the highest level.”
Frida Mom is the latest in a string of so-called “banned” ads hoping to air in big, cultural TV events like the Oscars or Super Bowl. There are even brands that have built marketing strategies around having their TV commercials rejected during these types of programming. These ads usually feature risqué scenes or are overtly controversial in some way that very obviously violates network policies against things like nudity. The brands then leverage the news of the ad being “banned” to garner publicity without actually having to shell out the millions of dollars it costs for commercial time on the networks.
“Every year we get an advertiser who wants us to invest our time for an ad they know won’t run,” says Mike Duda, Bullish co-founder and managing partner. He points to the cannabis industry as the latest group that’s looking to make buzz by saying TV networks won’t run their spots.
Just a few weeks ago, PETA claimed an ad showing various animals taking a knee during the National Anthem was banned from Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIV. In prior years, the animal rights organization said an ad showing a woman seductively licking vegetables was rejected, as well as a commercial featuring a woman having sex with a meat eater and a vegan. PETA has never actually aired a national commercial in the Super Bowl.
Regardless of Frida’s strategy, Duda says the intentions are noble. “They want to bring empathy to postpartum. There is a point here.” And even if Frida did know the ad would be rejected, by turning it into a publicity stunt it sheds light on the issue of how child birth and feminine hygiene is perceived and represented in media.
Correction: A previous version of the story said Frida Mom’s ad agency brought the company the opportunity to advertise in the Oscars when it previously had no plans to do so. This was incorrect and based on inaccurate information provided by a company spokesperson.