How to Cut Through but Not Offend? Verizon, Snickers Latest to Fail Test

Furor Over Ads Is a Reminder of How Easily a Blowup Can Occur

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NEW YORK ( -- Late last week, an important bit of marketing news about Mars Inc. was delivered to the world through an unusual channel: a press release from a gay-rights organization that had pressured the candy giant to pull one of its ads. The U.K. spot features a scene where Mr. T machine-guns Snickers bars at an effeminate man and culminates with the tagline "Snickers. Get Some Nuts." The Human Rights Campaign, summing up the sentiment of many in the blogosphere, said the bit condones violence against gays.

Meanwhile, a no-less-intense furor was brewing over an entirely different perceived offense against a totally different group of, um, life forms. Dog owners and canine organizations foamed over a Verizon Wireless commercial featuring a pair of snarling pit bulls that leap to devour a guy but fall short because of their chains. (Across the pond, another canine ad scandal formed around Churchill Insurance when its loveable spokesdog was accused of adding a barely audible obscene coda to his catchphrase.)

By week's end, both Verizon and Mars had caved under the pressure, showing that this, apparently, is no time for ads that risk offense -- not particularly good news for brands. With the sheer volume of commercial messages swelling, consumers are harder to reach than ever. A tried and true way of slicing through the noise is to prick or even jab at their sensibilities, an approach that may not lead directly to sales but may get a brand some much-needed attention. As a Verizon spokeswoman told "These are fictional ads, designed to be over-the-top, to break through the clutter and get our message across."

Mars pulled its Snickers ads, while Verizon put on what appeared to be a brave face and said it was keeping its ad in circulation. However, at least one version of the ad on You Tube had been pulled by week's end. In its place was a note that it had been removed after a "copyright claim" from McCann Erickson, which happens to be Verizon's agency.

Whether you view the uproars and reactions as political correctness gone wild or a legitimate response to offensive messaging, this sort of thing is nothing new, nor is it limited to the ad world. Last week also saw shock jock Michael Savage enrage parents of children with autism when he called the condition "a fraud, a racket." But it is a reminder of how easily a blowup can occur.

Garfield strikes
Consider the case of Snickers, which was put on the map after Ad Age critic Bob Garfield used his column space last week to post an open letter to John Wren, the CEO of Omnicom Group, parent of the ad's creator, AMV BBDO. Mr. Garfield argued that Omnicom-owned agencies had been responsible for three homophobic ads in recent years, including both the recent Snickers ad and one from the 2007 Super Bowl that features two guys beating the hell out of each other after they accidentally kiss over a candy bar. After being lobbied by the HRC, Mars took down the website that housed the ad.

Mr. Garfield's column picked up about 80 comments on and sparked all manner of conversation off the site, culminating in Mars' recent decision to yank the spot. It wasn't entirely surprising considering that the Snickers Super Bowl ad caused a similar uproar that resulted in the dismantling of the website that housed it.

What was probably more surprising was the diversity and reach of the outrage. Not only did liberal blogs or blogs maintained by gay men balk, but so did a blogger known only as Tammy, a self-described "amateur racewalker." She posted the video with a headline that read in part "Pathetic Ignorance" and followed with this mini diatribe: "I think I am going to have to boycott Snickers. I very rarely eat them, but I do buy them for my piano students. Not anymore."

If it seems the future's bleak for ads in a culture where so many are quite easily offended, a few creatives interviewed weren't particularly worried

Crossing a line
"There are two kinds of controversy in advertising," said Eric Hirshberg, chief creative officer at Deutsch, Los Angeles, in an e-mail. "One is the kind where you decide that it's worth turning off one group in order to get a more exaggerated and positive response from your target. The other kind is when you either intentionally or inadvertently cross a line of taste and decency."

Mr. Hirshberg said the Snickers ad fit into the second camp. "For me, a (clearly) gay guy being literally gunned down by a macho guy is an unfortunate case of the latter."

Gerry Graf, chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, and the man behind the controversial Snickers Super Bowl ad back when he was at TBWA, said this kerfuffle will only draw more eyes to the spot.

"It's silly," Mr. Graf said. "At the end of the day, take the stupid commercial off the air. It's on the internet anyway. Millions have already seen it, and now millions more are going to track it down."

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