Trying to Be Hip and Edgy, Ads Become Offensive
By STUART ELLIOTT and TANZINA VEGA
Published: May 10, 2013
Madison Avenue is learning a painful lesson: edgy advertising can slice both ways.
Mountain Dew dropped a video ad created by the rap artist Tyler, the Creator, in which a battered white waitress tried to pick her assailant from a lineup that included black men and a goat.
Some of the biggest names in marketing, including Ford Motor,General Motors, Hyundai Motor, Reebok and PepsiCo, have been forced recently to apologize to consumers who mounted loud public outcries against ads that hinged on subjects like race, rape and suicide.
PepsiCo found itself meeting this week with the Rev. Al Sharpton and the family of Emmet Till — the teenager whose death in Mississippi in 1955 helped energize the civil rights movement — to try to quell multiple controversies involving its Mountain Dew brand.
“It’s like the Wild West,” said Paul Malmstrom, a founding partner of the New York office of the Mother ad agency.
Advertising experts offer a long list of reasons for the increasing frequency of such incidents, but the primary reason they keep happening, they say, is the growing anxiety on Madison Avenue to create ads that will be noticed and break through the clutter.
“It’s the pressure to create ‘viral’ advertising, the urge to get more views online, that leads people to push the envelope,” said Tor Myhren, president and chief creative officer at Grey New York. He added that another contributing factor was the focus on younger consumers. “There’s so much ‘How do we speak to millennials?’ in meetings,” he said.
The toll that those controversies are taking on the ad business is in some instances more than just embarrassment. Two senior creative executives at JWT India, including a managing partner, lost their jobs after the company produced fake ads for the Ford Figo hatchback that showed women bound and gagged in the trunk as celebrities like Paris Hilton and Silvio Berlusconi sat behind the wheel.
JWT apologized, as did Ford, although there was nothing to suggest that the carmaker had either approved or known about the fake ads.
The celebrities in the Ford India ads appeared without consent, but even instances where stars agree to work with a brand can be fraught with risk.
Those celebrities, particularly rappers and actors with images as rebellious rule-breakers and risk-takers, often appeal to marketers’ youthful target audiences and have huge followings on social media. That is what drew Mountain Dew to Lil Wayne, the rapper who signed a multimillion-dollar celebrity endorsement deal with the soft-drink brand last year. The brand severed ties with the artist last week, however, after the Till family took issue with an ad that referred to Till with vulgar lyrics sung by Lil Wayne on a remix of “Karate Chop,” by the rapper Future.
As part of its efforts, the family also brought attention to an offensive Mountain Dew video ad created by the hip-hop producer and rap artist known as Tyler, the Creator. The spot featured a battered white waitress trying to identify her assailant from a lineup that included African-American men and a goat. Mountain Dew dropped the ad on May 1.
On Wednesday at the PepsiCo offices in White Plains, company executives, including Frank Cooper, the chief marketing officer for global consumer engagement for Pepsi, and Till family members gathered for a private meeting with Mr. Sharpton.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Sharpton described the meeting as good and its tone as respectful. He said, “The family explained the pain that they have gone through since the killing” and Pepsi executives “repeated their apology and said they would have nothing to do with Wayne and his tour.”
In a statement, the Till family said: “We look forward to ongoing and meaningful collaborations which bridge the music community, corporations, grass-roots organizations and youth.” A representative from PepsiCo agreed that the meeting had been amicable but declined to provide details.
David Schwab, senior vice president at Octagon First Call, a division of Octagon, the sports and entertainment marketing agency, said that brands used stars “to build awareness and create differentiation.”
“But a celebrity who can be a difference maker can come with a high risk,” Mr. Schwab warned, meaning “there is more pressure on brands to be careful.”
In April, Reebok dropped the rapper Rick Ross after the brand came under pressure for a lyric he performed in the Rocko song “U.O.E.N.O.” that referred to drugging a woman and having sex with her without her knowledge.
Hyundai UK dropped an ad last month that featured a man trying to commit suicide by running his car in a garage. The ad, meant for the European market, depicted how the effort failed because the car was a zero-emission Hyundai. The revelation was meant as a punch line, but consumers were horrified at what they deemed an attempt to make light of suicide.
General Motors scuttled an ad that promoted its Chevrolet Trax, a small sport utility vehicle that is sold in countries including Canada. The ad, set in the 1930s, featured a modern remix of a song from that era that included references to Chinese people using phrases like “ching ching, chop suey.”
Bob Garfield, the longtime advertising critic who is an author of the book “Can’t Buy Me Like,” said the situation was aggravated by the Internet culture on which millennials dote, which he described as “no holds barred,” where “a sense of permissiveness reigns.” It ought to come as no surprise, he added, that “incredible lapses of judgment” are taking place regularly at major brands and their marketing agencies.
Nancy Hill, president and chief executive at the trade organization for the ad industry, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said the “race to retweet and to click ‘thumbs up,’ ” overwhelms the impulse “to take a step back and make sure the ad is crafted exactly the way you want it to be received.”
Mr. Schwab said marketers like PepsiCo must pause for “due diligence” when dealing with celebrities like Lil Wayne, “learning what is the history of these people, what their lyrics say, what is their fan interaction — even a simple Google search.”
Mr. Myhren of Grey New York said his agency ran all ads through a legal clearance process and he hoped clients would run those ads through their own clearance processes as well.
Still, “you will see more” ad controversies, he predicted, until “there will be a really bad one, something that will happen to a major, major marketer that will make everyone rethink the checks and balances.”
Mr. Sharpton said he intended to lead a broader conversation with the executives of PepsiCo, other major corporations and the music industry, civil rights groups and the families of Mr. Till and Trayvon Martin. He said he would contact executives at Coca-Cola, Walmart, the record label Cash Money and the rap mogul Russell Simmons, among others, and expected to hold a meeting within the next 30 days.
“I don’t want to shut down black artists, but how do we protect ourselves against depravation and misogyny?” Mr. Sharpton said. “The artists do not understand that you may have a younger following, but you’re dealing with corporate responsibility from older stockholders who are just not going to tolerate that.”