Arts & Commerce: Lighten Up

Advertising does not cure cancer. It rarely affects world peace. For all the attempts to classify it as a “science,” advertising has essentially evolved from two snake oil salesmen on opposite corners yelling louder and making bolder claims. Today, there are more corners to yell from—radio, TV, the Internet—but the principle remains.

Yet you’d never know it, judging from the self-important seriousness pervading our industry.

Lighten up!

When did we lose our sense of humor and start taking ourselves so seriously? Is it the fault of the agencies that try to justify their fees? Or is it the clients that promise too many benefits because they over-estimate the value of their products?

Maybe it’s our collective fear of a media that concocts controversy over the simplest matters. This fear leads to self-censorship, hypersensitivity and the erosion of creativity.

One of our clients recently ran scared during the creation of an ad for a trade publication. This client sold products considered a commodity in today’s marketplace. Everyone had already hyped the usual. Lowest prices. Faster delivery. Better service. In a crowded field where everyone claims the same thing, why pay attention to them? We opted for a different approach.

We proposed a stock photo of a teenage couple from the 1970s on their way to the prom. The young man, dressed in a loud blue tuxedo, had his arm draped around a young woman in a cocktail dress. “Easier than your high school prom date,” stated the headline.

Admittedly, it was not the most politically correct ad. But it was fun. It was memorable. It grabbed attention for a commodity that was indistinguishable from its competitors. It also never ran.

After an initially positive response, the marketing department sent this ad to the higher-ups in corporate—and the self-censorship began. “What will women think? What will children think? Will angry protesters camp out at our headquarters? A much tamer ad ran instead. It communicated the same message but wasn’t as controversial or as much fun.

Has the fear of being politically incorrect made it a sin to state the obvious? Yes, a line has to be drawn, but when did it get so low?

Budweiser deserves a lot of credit for its “Whassup?” campaign. Funny. Memorable. Effective. But one person considered it racist, and the media jumped on it like hungry hyenas. The advertiser, the agency, even the actors were forced to answer questions about their intentions.

Don’t they get it? It’s only advertising; it’s not a new religious movement. Budweiser released another version of the commercial parodying their original ad. Other advertisers do it, too, such as Priceline’s William Shatner spots. The airwaves are filled with funny spots that parody themselves. I wouldn’t call it censorship, but real humor takes guts.

Think of the memorable ads in our lifetime.’s spot shooting gerbils out of a cannon. All the VW ads. They dared to be funny, and they succeeded. How they got out of committee I’ll never know.