Brands in Quest to Be Edgy

NEW YORK A blizzard of controversy is swirling around the advertising industry’s recent use of suicide imagery to sell its clients’ wares. But the questions remaining after two of the spots were pulled is just how far do marketers need to go these days to get the attention of audiences supposedly desensitized to TV violence? And how far can you go before attracting unwanted attention from the adults in the room?

The GM commercial, which broke during the Super Bowl, featured a factory line robot so despondent over losing his job he jumps off a bridge. The Volkswagen commercial showed a man so alienated and depressed by the state of the world that he teeters on the edge of a ledge. Bankers inch their way to a rooftop edge, threatening to go over if Washington Mutual doesn’t stop offering free checking. And a herd of office workers dives off a cliff like lemmings in a commercial for Four spots in two weeks with a suicide theme: Coincidence?

Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, attributes the confluence of spots to the standard of practice among marketers today to speak the language of the young targets they are trying to reach. “[Marketers are] drooling over these magical 18-34 year olds. This is a generation weaned on South Park, Comedy Central, edgy material,” he said. “Shocking material is absolutely the lingua franca of the culture.”

In the current technological age, where any commercial can be ignored using DVR technology, outrageous or attention-getting visuals such as a robot jumping off a bridge or a man on a ledge can guarantee viewing. “The first time I saw [the VW ad] I was watching something that I TiVoed and that one got me to stop,” said Thompson. “Part of it was to see what line has been crossed now.”

Yet when does a comedic disregard for life and limb go from being funny to just plain insensitive? Why is a suicidal robot acceptable, but not a horde of snooty bankers threatening to jump? What exactly is taboo?

Mark Wnek, chief creative officer of Lowe, New York, said that the controversy over the GM ad was overblown. “To get upset about the robot spot is ludicrous . . . it was playful,” but “VW was bit close to the edge.”

Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, adds that while a suicide theme may inherently seem off-limits, it’s often difficult to predict what consumers will respond to and how. The execution of the spot, how far the comedy is stretched, can be critical to the way it’s received. “There are three categories, food, sex and death, all of them can be fun and all of them can be tasteless,” he said, recalling a Super Bowl ad the agency produced several years ago for E*Trade that showed a man in critical condition being wheeled into the emergency room with “money up the wazoo.” “It’s advertising. You want to get people’s attention, but you also want them to like you.”

The fine line between the two makes all the difference, and that is the balancing act that marketers are learning they have to master. At press time, neither the WaMu spot, which comically centers on the group suicide threat, nor the ad, which also ran on the Super Bowl but only shows a quick end shot of the mass cliff jump, had felt a public backlash of either of their spots.

National mental health organizations such as the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and the American Psychiatric Association put the pressure on GM and VW to pull the controversial ads, and the marketers eventually complied. Both GM and VW pulled their spots. “What we wanted to do was create different scenarios with the whole idea that optimism prevails over negatives or bad situations,” said Kurt Schneider, general manager of creative content at Volkswagen. “We never set out to offend or create a situation where people were uncomfortable.”

And Crispin Porter + Bogusky has been here with VW before. Last year, the two made waves with a series of crash ads that graphically—and seriously—depicted VW drivers getting into accidents. Viewer reaction was visceral, but the uproar was never negative enough to necessitate pulling the ads.

The GM spot is being retooled by Deutsch, Marina Del Rey, Calif. GM vp of marketing and advertising Mike Jackson promised, “[Deutsch] is going to make it an even funnier spot and we’ll get even more attention.” The robot, he said, will return. The suicide nightmare will be substituted with a scene in which the robot walks by a junkyard and considers the fate of being scrapped instead.

Marty Cooke, partner, CCO, SS+K, said the recent attack on advertising ethics all stems from a culture that is becoming too politically correct. “On one hand you have marketers pushing to be outrageous, and on the other you have the tyranny of political correctness coming from the boardroom,” he said.

Thompson explained that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in advertising is changing just the way it is in television and film, but much slower. “Comedy has thrown open the doors,” he said. “But advertisers can’t paint from nearly as diverse a palette as comedians can or don’t think they can.”

The boundaries, he said, will keep expanding and contracting. “It’s almost like a tidal thing, the tide went up and wet a little more territory on the sand, but it didn’t stay there,” he said.

—additional reporting by Kathleen Sampey, Gregory Solman and Kamau High