Risque Business

One of the hotter controversies at Cannes this year was the awarding of the print Grand Prix to an ad deemed juvenile, sophomoric, sexist and crude.

I can’t say I agree that Saatchi & Saatchi’s double entendre-drenched Club 18-30 entry was the best print ad of the year. I certainly chuckled at the visual gags, but I’m more in line with those jury members who dismissed the ad as an easy sex joke, albeit a well-crafted one. (A TV spot for the club showed nothing but dog sex and it won a film gold.)

Then there was the Hamlet miniature-cigar campaign from CDP London, based on a midget joke. They’re too short to get on an amusement ride or reach the porn on the top shelf so they smoke the minis. Get it? Well, it was funny and it won a gold.

What was encouraging about the triumph of crude over clever was the fact that at a time when our culture is increasingly conservative, Cannes gave marketers a green light to play again. Those two campaigns would never have seen the light of day in the States. Just too controversial.

Even as TV content becomes ever more accepting of extreme language and violence, political correctness is stifling advertising. Last month, Suba ru pulled an ad from Temerlin McClain, Irving, Texas, that showed a mom and daughter trying to do a good deed: releasing a bunny into the wild. Pro-rabbit groups protested, saying a domesticated pet wouldn’t survive.

Then there was the 7Up ad in which comedian Godfrey hands out the soft drink in a prison. The offending joke? He accidentally drops a can. “I’m not picking that up,” he says. At the end, Godfrey says, “When you drink 7Up, everyone is your friend.” An inmate with an arm around Godfrey tightens his grip. “OK, that’s enough being friends,” he responds. A group called Stop Prisoner Rape charged 7Up with trivializing the trauma of abused inmates. The spot was pulled.

Have you heard the one about the probed chicken? A Carl’s Jr. ad from Mendelsohn/Zien shows gloved scientists giving a live chicken a cavity search in order to find “the nuggets.” United Poultry Concerns complained. Uh, anyone read Fast Food Nation? Carl’s Jr. kept the ad on the air.

Content sensitivities are certainly not limited to the U.S.—Xbox’s Grand Prix contender, “Champagne,” was pulled off U.K. television after complaints that it was too morbid. But that decision was made by the Independent Television Commission, and the ad remained in cinemas.

Everyone has a right to have their voice heard. That’s what this country is about. But that doesn’t mean a carefully crafted (and carefully approved) concept should be abandoned the minute a few dissenters pop up. True, there have been many ads that should never have made it on air. (Remember Just for Feet’s Super Bowl debacle?) But what’s the message sent to the junior writer or art director with brave new ideas? Hypersensitivity over who might take offense will only produce more vanilla.

One of the European judges at Cannes said the print Grand Prix choice was a statement about U.S. conservatism encroaching on the rest of the world. But we can appreciate a joke when it’s delivered well, to the right people at the right time. Bring it on. We just might enjoy it.