SCMP Tuesday, July 10, 2001
Ads on the Edge
Each night in November 1994, as Kieron Simpson locked up his Quarry Bay office, he would take a furtive look over his shoulder. Beside him walked a police guard, assigned for his protection in the wake of daily death threats telephoned from abroad, and wild rumours that he was being tailed by Israeli secret service agents. For one fearful week, Simpson had a fleeting glimpse of what Salman Rushdie's life must be like post-fatwa.
But while Rushdie became an international cause celebre after incurring the wrath of Muslim extremists with his novel The Satanic Verses, Simpson's plight was more humble. He was an ad man. Yet he, too, had become painfully aware of the power of the word. As a creative director with Euro RSCG Ball Partnership, he had - in one stroke - managed to upset the world's Jewish community and a large proportion of the Western hemisphere to boot.
It's not difficult to see why. A full-page picture of the 20th-century's evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, stared out from Hong Kong newspapers the morning after Remem-brance Sunday. On the opposite page ran the words, ''With 90 per cent of Europe under his control, he still lost the war''. Underneath, a strap line read, ''Thank goodness he couldn't advertise on ATV''.
To hammer home the message, the pay-off line included a pun offering advertisers their own ''final solution''.
When an international news agency picked up on the ad, it reverberated around the world. Phone calls from journalists and Jewish groups everywhere clogged the company's phone lines. ''I realised very quickly how wrong you can be and how upset people can be by your work,'' reflects Simpson with the benefit of seven years' hindsight. ''In retrospect it wasn't a good ad.'' Simpson did not write the script, but as creative director, was accountable. ''Originally we had Mao [Ze-dong] in the ad, and ATV said, _ou can't use Mao because this is China, it would offend a lot of people'. So we used Hitler and we got it wrong.''
Simpson was astounded by the response. ''Actually, people in Hong Kong didn't bat an eyelid. But Reuters got hold of it and everyone else was upset. Then we started getting complaints, people calling up the agency. There were death threats, police escorts, a few loonies calling from America. There were rumours going around about Mossad [the Israeli secret service] tailing me, although I don't think there was any truth in that. Police kept an eye on us for a week. It died down very quickly, but it's amazing how many people remember it.''
People may remember, but it doesn't mean they learn. Last month, two advertisers had to apologise for misjudged advertisements. First, Buddhist monks were affronted when food manufacturer Amoy depicted Po Lin Monastery's Big Buddha statue cupping two bottles of soy sauce in one hand and wielding chopsticks in the other. Then TVB cut its promotional trailer for the movie Volcano after viewers were sickened by the inclusion of footage of the Oklahoma bombing and the execution of bomber Timothy McVeigh.
That the use of religion and atrocities in the world of marketing will stir controversy may appear blindingly obvious, yet many issues are not so clear-cut: one person's symbol of sexual freedom is another's sex object, violence can be deemed gratuitous, attempts at humour can be insulting. With several complaints about advertisements being made every day, it's clear some people are getting the wrong message.
''People will complain about anything,'' says Simpson. ''Because ads are targeted at one specific group, if they work, they're always going to upset someone not in that group. The agencies always get blamed, but a lot of the time it's the clients who are pushing and being irresponsible.''
Simpson may admit he was wrong over the Hitler ad, but has no regrets. ''Does this ad promote genocide? No it doesn't. It doesn't say, _o and kill your neighbours','' he says. ''You look at the amount of ads in the world which are completely dull. Those are the ones people should be complaining about, rather than ads which break through and make people sit up and take notice. The trouble is a lot of controversial ads aren't good ads. But it's always a temptation.''
It's a temptation many advertisers fall for. If it works, the creators are declared geniuses; if it fails, they're castigated. The dilemma advertisers face is where to draw the line between grabbing attention and being offensive. It's a tightrope many have failed to walk in the SAR.
In May, TVB and ATV were each fined $50,000 by the Broadcasting Authority for screening the commercial which announced with a bang that E-Trade had arrived on the SAR's online brokerage scene. The commercial, which had ended its six-week run when the fines were handed out, shows a driver of a clapped-out Japanese car repeatedly smashing into a Ferrari after being beaten to a parking space. The driver then gets out and kicks the Italian car, shouting: ''E-Trade, E-Trade . . . ''
The Broadcasting Authority upheld the opinion of the Television and Entertain-ment Licensing Authority (Tela) - which had received 146 complaints from viewers - that the commercial contained gratuitous violence, encouraged vandalism and stirred hatred between the haves and have-nots. ''When you watch TV, I don't think our ad is particularly violent, it's supposed to be funny,'' insists Mathias Helleu, E-Trade's managing director. ''We looked at what our competition was doing in terms of commercials and found it was traditional. The message we wanted to give people was, _on't lag behind'.''
The ad symbolised the financial consequences for those who fail to join the online trading revolution, but failed to impress advertising peers.
''We wanted to talk to people in a more aggressive way, be bold and try to be humorous, not create antagonism between the poor and the rich or be violent for the sake of it. We were happy with what we did and the response was good. We exceeded our expectations in the first two months in Hong Kong.''
But it is the broadcaster who is punished, not the advertiser. ATV's Timothy Wong says an internal team views commercials before broadcast and ''very much regrets the ruling''. ''We think it would be fairer if advertisers as well are held responsible.''
TVB's assistant general manager, SK Cheong, says TV stations face a ''tremendously difficult'' task. ''On one hand we are seeking advertisers, and on the other having to tell them that their ad is not good enough. We are a commercial company and have no public mandate to make such decisions.'' Revisions were made to the E-Trade ad on TVB's recommendation, leaving Cheong unhappy with the fine. ''The public will see it as a slur on TVB.''
Tela commissioner Eddy Chan Yuk-tak says he only has power to regulate broadcasters and, while he saw the attempt at humour, ''people were looking at it from a different angle''. ''The car park was empty, it wasn't justified. There was no mitigating factor to say that deliberately ramming into someone's car is not a heroic action.''
Tela is the watchdog with the unenviable task of handling public complaints about advertising. Adverts published in magazines, newspapers are governed by the Obscene Articles Tribunal (OAT), a judicial body with a history of controversial decisions (including classifying Michelangelo's statue of David as indecent). Tela investigates complaints about TV commercials but findings and punishments are made by the Broadcasting Authority.
Since 1989, commercials have not been censored before broadcast, but a code of standards stipulates that ads must be truthful, not misleading and comply with programming rules which forbid obscenity, indecency and gratuitous violence.
''Our role is not to impose our standards on the broadcaster, it is to reflect community standards,'' says Chan, saying members of the public sit on viewing panels and 500 citizens are regularly consulted on Tela's decisions.
Complaints have increased during the past three years, with 29 commercials being deemed unsuitable for broadcast since 1998, a small fraction of those complained about. Broadcasters are usually warned, but can be fined. Chief among causes for complaint are that ads are unsuitable for children, contain horrifying material, violence, sexism, indecency and bad taste.
But it doesn't take much to upset viewers in Hong Kong.
Sexual innuendo and risque (or not so risque) flashes of flesh send the blood pressure of many viewers soaring. Eighty-eight viewers protested that a Calci-Plus ad showing people dressed in underwear at work was ''crude, indecent, disgusting and offensive''. Chickeeduck came under fire for showing naked toddlers in its ad captioned, ''God created the best children's wear. We created the next best''.
Many complaints range from banal to bizarre. One viewer suggested a young woman wearing binder clips on her ear lobes in a 7-Eleven commercial was a bad influence on children, another claimed an image of a vampire hopping along the street (to sell a mattress) was ''terrifying and disturbing'', while a man in a gorilla costume advertising a notebook computer was enough to freak out another couch potato.
Chan admits there are some spurious complaints, but insists: ''We have to look at every complaint seriously. Everyone is entitled to complain.''
The biggest file in his in-tray is usually marked Sunday. The mobile phone firm gets more people's veins popping than any other advertiser in Hong Kong. Never more so than last year, when a commercial featuring a taxi driver being visited by a ghost passenger sparked 1,823 calls to Tela's hotline, mainly from parents complaining it gave their children nightmares.
''Nobody in their right mind would have thought that was truly scary,'' says Sunday's group managing director Craig Ehrlich. In which case, the Broadcasting Authority must be a few members short of a full board. It gave television stations a serious warning after ruling the ghost ad would ''unnerve, unsettle and disturb'' children as well as many adults.
''I understand people not liking ads and complaining to Government, but I think it's very dangerous when the Government starts making decisions on what is and is not appropriate,'' complains Ehrlich.
Sunday has come under constant fire for many of its ads: oversized women working out in a gym, showing a human eyeball in a bowl of noodle soup and using gay innuendo in an attempt to target the pink dollar. Its launch posters in 1997 set the tone, employing a cheeky double-entendre to make its mark. ''What do women not get on Friday?'' asked one ad. ''What do men think about 20 times a day?'' questioned another. ''The answer [revealed later] was Sunday,'' says Ehrlich. But the MTR banned the ads as unsuitable. ''So we stamped banned across them and put them in the SCMP,'' Ehrlich says triumphantly.
''Sunday is the underdog and needs to shout and get people to take notice that they exist,'' observes Simpson.
Ehrlich agrees. When the company launched in late 1997, it was an upstart in an entrenched market, so it chose the advertising agency BBDO, which also made the E-Trade ad and is renowned as innovative and risk-taking. ''We had to do something different, that's why we came up with the name Sunday, a day everyone looked forward to,'' Ehrlich says. Sunday's personality was to be ''youthful, irreverent and innovative'' and the ads were created to achieve this.
''We live in a society where we're bombarded by messages. With all that clutter, you have to break through. You have to deliver a different message and get people to remember it,'' Ehrlich says. ''Do we make ads to stir controversy? No, absolutely not. If you take a risk, not everyone will like what you do. Do I like all the ads we create? No. Some I love and some are not my type. But they send a message.''
While TV ads spark most outcry, print ads can be just as flammable. In January, the OAT ruled as indecent an ad for Opium perfume, which showed a supine Sophie Dahl naked but for a pair of stilettoes. The company decided to crop the picture to show just a close up of the model's head.
In the past two-and-a-half years, nine adverts have been submitted to the tribunal, of which four were ruled indecent, one leading to a $5,000 fine and two to warning notices. The fourth involves Sunday. Action is being considered against two Chinese newspapers which ran the ad. The maximum penalty for the publisher is a $1 million fine and three years in jail.
But MTR bosses have shown themselves to be more prurient than the official watchdogs. Three years ago, Bodyshop unveiled Ruby, a cuddly female doll chosen as a poignant riposte to the super-svelte mannequins favoured by most fashion and cosmetic firms. ''There are three billion women who don't look like supermodels and only eight who do. Know your mind, love your body,'' exclaimed the ad.
Missing the point entirely, MTR bosses deemed it unsightly and banned it. It ranks as one of the absurd decisions to date. ''It was a brilliant campaign,'' says Simpson. ''The MTR said it was unsightly. She may be, but she's a fair representation of the female population.''
Says Ehrlich: ''That was the biggest joke in the world. To think Ruby was offensive was crazy.''
The MTRC's May Wong says advertising decisions are made by hired hands Pearl & Dean, which follows the advertising code of practice and the corporation's own guidelines.
In Ruby's case, feminists were for once in favour of a naked female. But Carlsberg rattled the same lobby group in 1995 with its cringe-worthy depiction of a group of overseas Chinese men downing beers and describing what was so alluring about women's legs. The ad even prompted a street protest and threats to boycott the beer.
Despite being publicly defended by its female creator, Bozell's Sylvia Lee, the Carlsberg commercial led to 319 complaints to Tela. The watchdog found the complaints unsubstantiated. And, as Simpson points out, ''if you're aiming the ad at chauvinist males, it works. Women's groups being up in arms is just going to be a giggle down the pub for the target market. Often if an ad is that provocative, it gets people talking about it''.
Advertisers will always push boundaries, Simpson says. ''People who come into advertising are not politically or socially aware. You don't come in with a burning desire to change the world. You come with a burning desire to sell stuff. A lot of controversial work comes out of a gung-ho mentality which is hard to check.''
Wiser after his Hitler-ad ordeal, Simpson adds: ''Controversy is a cheap tool. There are so many other ways of cutting through. You can do it gracefully, intelligently, funnily . . . you don't have to be in someone's face all the time.''
Simpson, now at M&C Saatchi, has not shied away from provocative work, but his philosophy has changed. ''You can still be controversial, but I think you should be socially responsible.''
Working on a topical campaign for Asiaweek magazine recently, Simpson had a few ideas knocked back. One had played on Nike's alleged use of third-world labour to make its running shoes. ''We focused on the Nike backlash, and asked, _s it better to work in a sweatshop or become a prostitute and die of Aids?' - which for a lot of them is the only option they've got.''
The proposal was rejected as too controversial. ''But that's the one ad I've done in the past two years that I would have loved to have seen run,'' Simpson says. Then he grins and adds: ''It would have raised a lot of hackles.''
Complaints against adverts on TV
Year/ Complaints (Cases)/ Referred to BAC/ Substantiated
1998/ 874 (145)/ 501 (17)/ 215 (14)
1999/ 1,531 (199)/ 85 (5)/ 180 (3)
2000*/ 2,493 (144)/ 2,018 (13)/ 1,195 (9)
2001 (Jan-May)/ 761 (37)/ 131 (3)/ 131 (3)
* Includes Sunday ''Ghost'' ad with 1,823 complaints