Why are ads so boring?
Political correctness hampers advertising creativity

More than $300 billion a year is spent on advertising in North America each year. Advertisers have at their disposal top acting and production talent, celebrity endorsers and huge budgets. So why are most ads so, well boring?

"In Quebec advertising is cautious and nice, because Quebecers are cautious and nice," said freelance copywriter Michel Lopez at an industry conference last week on whether advertisers are scared to produce cutting edge advertising.

Lopez believes that the public's mood is characterised by a political correctness he calls the "good citizen syndrome," which lately has been taken to an extreme. "You have caught the good citizen syndrome when you are worried about wishing someone merry Christmas, because you don't want to hurt the feelings (of people from other religions).

The perception of the advertising industry in the mind of many is that of a behemoth, using mass media to brainwash mindless consumers. In fact, advertisers are extremely sensitive to the public's needs and desires ­ they have to be or they won't sell their products.

And right now there is enormous pressure at all levels of the industry on advertisers to produce "nice" advertising that won't offend anyone.

Lopez himself fell victim to this pressure when a campaign he worked on for the
Quebec launch of Old Milwaukee beer for La Brasserie Stroh Ltée. was cited by Advertising Standards Canada, an industry watchdog which issues guidelines for advertising targeting children, gender portrayal, comparative advertising and the like.

The campaign was aimed at achieving quick recognition among its working class target market for a beer that was relatively new in Quebec. The ad team decided to feature Playboy playmate Karen McDougal serving beer in some of its advertising.

In its 1999 mid-year report Advertising Standards Canada cited the seemingly tame Old Milwaukee campaign because it featured "irrelevant segmentation of body parts and exploited a woman's sexuality in order to sell products unrelated to sexuality.

But industry guidelines are only a small part of the pressure those who produce ads have to deal with. Recently, several advertising campaigns have been cut short or impaired by players within the business community.

Last week Sears, Roebuck and Co., the second largest U.S. retailer announced that it would stop sales of Benneton USA apparel and products from its stores in reaction to a campaign conducted by United Colors of Benneton called "We on Death Row."

The brilliantly conceived ads, which involve humanising death row convicts by photographing them head on in a sympathetic fashion, make no mention of the crimes they have committed.

Soon after the ads hit the streets, relatives of the featured killer's victims began picketing Sears stores, leading to a potential explosion of the death penalty debate with both Sears and Benneton caught right in the middle.

Sears immediately saw the danger of getting involved in a no win situation, but instead of asking Benneton to drop the campaign, they basically threw the apparel manufacturer out of the door.

A similar situation occurred in California last month when sign company Outdoor Systems refused access for about 20 sites to the Breast Cancer Fund for its "Obsessed with Breasts" campaign.

The ads -- which feature models that have only one breast and a mastectomy scar where the second one normally would be -- are designed to raise awareness for breast cancer, and were to be run in other cities as well. But with the problems the campaign is having in open-minded California, plans may be scaled back.

Individual consumers lodging a complaint can have a huge influence on an advertising campaign. Stories are rampant in the industry of ads being pulled for seemingly the most minor of transgressions such as the use of a divorced couple in an ad, use of slang, or one in which a woman slaps a man for staring at another woman.

Advertisers are terrorised of the individual consumer said Lopez, since "according to Canadian Code of Advertising Standards one small hand written letter can end a multi-media campaign costing several million dollars."

But it is not just industry standards, retailers, and special interest consumers that are doing the most harm to the quality of advertising, it is the self-censorship of all players in the advertising production process.

There are now so many layers and filters and tests that most ads must go through before hitting the public, that even if they start out tasting like rum and raisin they come out of the process as vanilla.

The average person now watches in excess of twenty hours a week of television. Of this, five hours a week is commercial advertisements. Now vanilla may taste great, but five hours a week of it sounds like a heck of a lot.




Photo caption: This ad for Old Milwaukee beer was cited by Advertising Standards Canada for exploiting a women's sexuality to sell a product unrelated to sexuality.

Diekmeyer can be contacted at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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