Giles Keeble: is political correctness to blame for the dearth of great advertising?

Some years ago I was running a workshop in New York. Of the 12 or so people there, only two were men, one of whom was quite opinionated. During a discussion (which he was dominating) I said ‘ok, ok- let’s hear what the girls think’, deafening silence. Eventually one of the women told me she hadn’t been called a ‘girl’ since high school. I apologised, though I did say that in the UK in informal situations that might not have been an issue – a woman could say to a group of men ‘why don’t you boys go off and watch the football’ for example.

The workshop was not a board meeting in which such a term would have been insulting, but it made me very aware of cultural differences, and the kind of unthinking use of words and phrases that have led to ‘political correctness.’ It may be an over-reaction but after years and years of misuse, an understandable one. This came back to me recently when someone said the reason there is so little good advertising nowadays is because of PC. Steve Henry once did a presentation of great ads and showed how easy it would have been to kill them (and that was long after the famous Risk and Responsibility video with Jeremy Bullmore, Sam Rothenstein and David Bernstein ‘improving’ the Man with the Hathaway Shirt.)

It’s always easy to find something ‘wrong’, much harder to recognise great work and support it. PC isn’t just about positive affirmation as that in itself doesn’t mean an ad will be bad (in the same way that a black nobleman as an emissary for Queen Elizabeth I in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ didn’t make the film bad, though it might have raised an historically quizzical eyebrow.) There are clearly many ads now that are being cast across the full spectrum of ethnic groups, which would be fine if they also had an idea. So I don’t know whether the hypothesis is true, or whether most ads are as bad as they always were but in different ways, affected by different media channels, budgets and short-termism.

The fact that many (some) great ads from the past might not get through nowadays is not the same as saying that there are few great ads nowadays because to be great an ad needs to be what might be considered un-PC. Risk is avoided, but that has always been the case. (Avoiding any risk seems to me to be the biggest risk: dull, badly and over-researched advertising is still a bad investment.) Of course, advertising does need to be provocative at times in order to stand out, though to be great perhaps it should also be relevant. But an insult isn’t the only way to be provocative, though what one person finds insulting may be what another finds normal, or amusing. Show a gay family, as McCains did, and you will get a complaint. Maybe you can’t win. But proper consideration and discussion at the start may ascertain what ‘risk’ there is if any, whether the possible offence is crucial to the ad, and if it is whether to stand by it and be prepared to state the case.

I have briefly thought about some ads from the past that would probably not get through these days. You could make your own list. (Answers on a postcard to MAA). While there is evidence that ‘sex sells’, what is it permitted now? Cadbury’s Flake? Wonderbra (even though some women liked the posters). Yorkie’s ‘Not for Girls’ (even though sales to women increased). Ron Collins’ radio ad for Bergasol would definitely not have made it. Tim Delaney’s Timberland ad ‘Then we went back for their shoes’ – one in a great print campaign- also would not. (I was unsure of it at the time, and when I mentioned this to Tim he said’ You’re not on the Jury are you?’) What about claims? Is their any creative licence? Would ‘Heinken Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’ be allowed today?

And so on. Times change. Context changes, though some argue that is not an excuse. With a good product, a good brand, a good client and a good agency it should always be possible to do good advertising, in whatever form. Great, though, has always been really hard and maybe it’s got harder, possibly because of political correctness, but also because there have already been so many ideas and executions, it is harder to be original.

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