linked in facebook twitter rss

  • Interbrand
  • Brandchannel

your chance!
your chance!


  Offensive but effective?   Offensive but effective?  Edwin Colyer  
Offensive but effective? It is an advertiser's single aim: grab your attention. In the marketing mêlée, somehow a message must get through: advertisements fight for your eyes and ears, a morsel of your time, an iota of your attention.

And in the endless battle for your focus the theatre of operations is often in the extreme. There are no niceties here – shock tactics make one stop and stare. Mission accomplished.

How can one forget the bold letters "FCUK" emblazoned on a roadside billboard or proudly displayed on a teenager's T-shirt? In the UK, one could not miss the erotic Sophie Dahl, apparently overcome by the orgasmic powers of Opium perfume.

But sometimes an advertising agency goes too far – and risks damaging the reputation of the very brand it seeks to enrich. The agency succeeds in attracting attention, but undermines the very products it is trying to promote. The Sophie Dahl campaign, for example, certainly seemed to backfire. After receiving almost 1000 complaints from the public, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority ordered the poster to be removed from public billboards. It stated that the advertisement, as a poster, was "sexually suggestive" and likely to cause "serious or widespread offense.” A total of 47 advertisements in 2000 were deemed to breach the Authority's code of conduct relating to taste and decency.

Similarly, H&M's adverts on New York buses featuring Claudia Schiffer showing off the season's skin-colored underwear also disappeared after complaints. And Benetton's "On Death Row" campaign caused upset around the globe. Indeed, a lawsuit in Missouri forced the company to write an apology to the families of murder victims and donate US$ 50,000 to the Missouri Crime Victims Fund.

Nevertheless, judging advertisements on their potential to offend is like comparing the music of Beethoven and Marilyn Manson. What one person sees as provocative another hails as creative. "A piece of stimulus in itself is difficult to be universally offensive unless it goes into taboo areas like child abuse," says Robert Bean, chairman of London-based consultancy Brand Bank. "Setting out to get something banned or cause offence is far from foolproof. In the advertising industry it is not a recognized strategy – and the publicity you get for it is often negative."

For Bean, advertisements for products and services should all follow a single, simple strategy: to be consistent with the brand. "People hate being misled, when advertisements are full of untruth. If you use taboo subjects in advertising, but the rest of your product and service is not risqué, you're running into trouble."

Only occasionally, then, should the advertising and marketing cause offense by breaking taboos. The environmental campaigning organization Greenpeace, with its “spiky” brand, may get away with it, but does risqué work in the world of clothes and fashion? Eamonn Stores, Clients Services & Media Director with digital communications agency Profero, finds good and bad examples. "I don't subscribe to sensationalist advertising," he says. "Sometimes people use the media to say something about their brand that isn't there. Do you, for instance, see evidence of Benetton as a company taking risks in the rest of their business as they do in their advertising?

"On the other hand I don't see FCUK as offensive. For me it is a play on a word that I accept as part of everyday language. It has irreverence and humor."

Bean agrees. "At worse FCUK is saying a rude word, but it's mild in my view. The worse offense is to promise something on posters but disappoint me at the point of delivery. If I walk across the street to a French Connection store it is because the letters FCUK promise excitement and danger. If I find it dull and with Muzak playing I'll feel misled."

Since its launch, the FCUK brand has had overwhelming success. It sells over one million fcuk T-shirts each year. "FCUK portrays cheekiness, energy and a fresh attitude to life," says Bean. "It's part of a sort of rebellion."

FCUK is perfect for the fashion conscious late teens and early twenties. Four letters, carefully rearranged, effectively spell out an irreverence for parents, conformity and censure. The marketing might upset an older generation, but French Connection's target consumer loves it.

Bold and rebellious branding is no guarantee into youth culture, however. "Actually I think the opposite is true," warns Bean. "Dull and straight will not be noticed. But just because something offends older people does not mean it will be accepted by a younger audience. People are so sophisticated and they see through what an advertiser is trying to do – and they don't like being manipulated."

But could the brand become a victim of its own success? You can now wear FCUK scents and drink FCUK mixers in the bar; the four letters no longer make you look twice. People recognize the logo for what it is.

This slip into the mainstream is always the long-term danger of relying on shocking and provocative advertising: it eventually goes stale. The problem with a form like FCUK is that there are only so many ways to play on words. French Connection will have to find new ways to keep its freshness and rebellious attitude alive, or else the consumer will look for something new.

Perhaps the company should take comfort in Bean's summation. "The real risk in advertising is not being seen at all, so if in doubt play dangerously. Shock tactics are a solution for the desperate. What makes the effects lasting is to go back and figure out on what grounds the shock is being made. The reason that FCUK has lasted is that chief executive Steve Marks has been looking at radically doing his business, not just the advertising. The FCUK brand is about attitude to life."

FCUK's advertising is consistent with its philosophy. Whether on a billboard, a T-shirt or a cranberry vodka, it cheekily puts its finger up to convention.    



Edwin Colyer is a science and technology writer based in Manchester, UK.

 commenting closed Add Social Bookmark bookmark  print
 suggest topic  recommend ( 17 )  email

  brandchannel home archive   2013  |  2012  |  2011  |  2010  |  2009  |  2008  |  2007  |  2006  |  2005  |  2004  |  2003  | 2002  |  2001
Dec 30, 2002 Are Books Bound by Their Brand? -- Edwin Colyer
  Some authors have strong brands, but how many of us choose a book by its publisher?
Dec 16, 2002 Has Gen X Fallen Through the Cracks? -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  Generation Y appears preferable to Gen X for brand owners and advertisers pitching their wares. Should we mind the generation gap?
Dec 9, 2002 Can Small Businesses Sprout Big Brands? -- Edwin Colyer
  Small or large, every business has a brand, and the ability to use it to its advantage.
Dec 2, 2002 Anti-Globalists v. Big Brands: Who is Going to Win? -- Randall Frost
  Is there a win-win solution between the anti-globalists and big brands?
Nov 25, 2002 Milking the Organic Market -- Erin Speiser Ihde
  Organic brands are positioning themselves as an alternative for health-conscious, socially responsible consumers. The challenge? Milking a higher price.
Nov 18, 2002 Branding Drugs for a Market of One -- Edwin Colyer
  As pharmacogenomics surface on the horizon, how can pharmaceuticals market efficiently to tiny patient groups?
Nov 11, 2002 Can Japanese Brands Go Global? -- Randall Frost
  Why don't Japan's brands have a stronger presence outside of their local markets?
Nov 4, 2002 The Key to Branding (and Financial) Success -- Vincent Grimaldi de Puget
  How to make your brand rise above the background noise in spite of limited resources, and contribute to improving your company's bottom line.
Oct 28, 2002 Branding the Bush -- Ron Irwin
  Making a killing on eco-tourism.
Oct 21, 2002 Barbie Goes to Court -- Ed Meikle
  Barbie flexes her muscles in the wake of defamation.
Oct 14, 2002 Keep Your Brand Clean -- John Karolefski
  How to prove your innocence during a threat of guilty by association.
Oct 7, 2002 HELP WANTED: Top Talent Apply Within -- Dale Buss
  In lean times, companies depend even more on their most valuable brand champions: Employees.
Sep 30, 2002 Chefs Acquire a Taste for Branding -- Jocelyne Henri
  Creating a brand à la mode with France's pastry brands, Pierre Hermé, Dalloyau and Ladurée.
Sep 23, 2002 Putting Out the Fire: Managing Through Crisis -- David Liss
  Steering your brand through disaster.
Sep 16, 2002 Cutting Costs: Resource Management All in One Tool -- Fiona Harvey
  Is resource management resourceful thinking?
Sep 9, 2002 Fire Drill: Preparing for Crisis -- David Liss
  Are you ready to protect your brand when disaster strikes?
Sep 2, 2002 Can Dead Dot Coms Be Reincarnated? -- Brad Cook
  Is there value left in the dead brands of generically named dot coms such as pets, wine, and eToys.
Aug 26, 2002 Commodities: Branding the Basics -- Eric Mirabel
  How do we go about turning a commodity product or production capability into a new brand? We look at the Middle East, a transitioning market where manufacturers are branding commodities.
Aug 19, 2002 Brands in Toyland -- Ron Irwin
  Is branding in the toy world just child’s play? We look at how traditional brands like LEGO and Brio stand up to the dazzlingly high-tech competition.
Aug 12, 2002 Long Live the King -- John Karolefski
  Young and svelte, bloated and strung out, Elvis had universal appeal throughout his short lifespan. The king may be dead but apparently the brand lives on.
Aug 5, 2002 IBM Navigates the Biotech Maze -- Edwin Colyer
  IBM Global Services is expanding to a variety of areas like its recent acquisition of PwC Consulting. We look at how a brand like this penetrates the life sciences market.
Jul 29, 2002 Do Nonprofits Have Value? -- Robin Rusch
  As we unveil Interbrand's league tables of the world's most valuable brands for for-profit brands in 2002, we ask, Is there value in a nonprofit brand?
Jul 22, 2002 Trials and Tribulations of Global Naming -- Ed Meikle
  We look at recent trademarking issues from PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Monday to Philip Morris’s Altria and discuss the basic guidelines for domain name registration disputes.
Jul 15, 2002 Successful Start-ups Launch with a Brand -- David Liss
  Why do some start-up brands fail where others succeed? When should one begin to think about the brand in the entrepreneurial process?
Jul 8, 2002 Pushing Product: Is In-Store Promotion Effective? -- John Karolefski
  Is in-store marketing effective or just more clutter separating us from our favorite brand of ice cream?
Jul 1, 2002 Shopping Through a Recession: How Will Luxury Brands Survive? -- Dale Buss
  How are luxury brands faring in the aftermath of September 11 and the past year of recession?
Jun 24, 2002 Lawless Branding: Recent Developments in Trademark Law -- Ed Meikle
  This month’s trademark law developments: Sony loses Walkman to the masses in Austria and FIFA takes on ambush marketers in Latin America.
Jun 17, 2002 Prescribing a Global Identity -- Edwin Colyer
  The pharmaceutical industry has been wary of promoting big, international brands, but is it better to stay local or go global?
Jun 10, 2002 Positioning: The Missing Piece in the Tech Sector -- Rob Gelphman
  Brands in the tech sector need to work on their positioning.
Jun 3, 2002 The New CCO: Delivering Customer Care -- Dale Buss
  In a recession, suddenly everyone cares about attracting the customer. Enter the Chief Customer Officer.
May 27, 2002 Ambush Marketing Steals the Show -- Abram Sauer
  Competition is heating up as sponsoring brands of the World Cup and other global sporting events struggle with ambush marketing.
May 20, 2002 Time Release Branding -- Edwin Colyer
  New pharma needs to launch with a bang. But at which stage beyond molecule is it time to start the branding process?
May 13, 2002 The Sport of Naming -- John Karolefski
  Naming rights for sports stadiums may be big business but are they sound business?
May 6, 2002 Private Labels: Does Branding Matter? -- Robin Rusch
  Can private labels be considered brands? What threat do they pose to brand owners?
Apr 29, 2002 Multimedia Makes the Grade -- Kim Barnet
  Can the education industry learn how to harness multimedia to create new tools and improve its overall brand image?
Apr 22, 2002 Franchising in China: A Dead Duck? -- Edward Young
  The rush to franchise in China may be faster than the drive-through at McDonald's, but the results are not always favorable to the brand.
Apr 15, 2002 Bottled Water Floods the Market -- John Karolefski
  Megabrands Groupe Danone and Nestlé lead the bottled water market. But as new markets rise, so do the stakes. Who will win the latest water war?
Apr 8, 2002 Can Branding Save the World? -- Ron Irwin
  Ben & Jerry’s, Avon and Patagonia all engage in cause-related or values-led marketing. Is it a justifiable endeavor or just a feel-good makeover?
Apr 1, 2002 Can Gap Mend Its Brand? -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  At one time, Gap had the retail clothing market sewn up. Now it struggles against sister brands Banana Republic and Old Navy.
Mar 25, 2002 Is China's Film Industry Overexposed? -- Edward Young
  As Kodak loses its agreement to manufacture film in China, are local brand Lucky and global giants Fuji, Konica, and Agfa-Gevaert ready to leap in?
Mar 11, 2002 Mortal Brands: Continuing the Legacy -- John Karolefski
  What happens to a brand when its spokesperson literally dies? As Wendy’s re-evaluates its strategy, we look to other branded icons for some hints.
Mar 4, 2002 Apple Shines: Brandchannel's 2001 Readers' Choice Award Results -- Robin Rusch
  What do Apple, Nokia, Volkswagen,, Absolut and Starbucks have in common? Brandchannel's 2001 Readers' Choice survey results are here.
Feb 25, 2002 Has Your Brand Become Generic? -- Stephen Gardner
  What happens when your brand name is part of the public domain? We look at names that have gone generic.
Feb 18, 2002 Zero Percent Brand Management? -- Dale Buss
  Are American automakers trailing behind their overseas counterparts when it comes to managing their brands?
Feb 11, 2002 Conquering New Grounds -- John Karolefski
  Starbucks serves up a fresh brew around the world, but are non-Americans ready to wake up to this powerful brand?
Feb 4, 2002 MTV: 360 Degrees 24/7 -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  With a reputation like MTV, the pressure to score high in new media is huge. Is MTV able to give its audience what it wants… online?
Jan 28, 2002 Penetrating the Birth Control Market -- Katherine Daniel
  From legislation to disease, contraception manufacturers focus the brand on mundane subjects and leave out the best part: the sex!
Jan 21, 2002 Brand Mobility: Telecom Operators Turn to Handsets -- Edwin Colyer
  Will cellular service brands eclipse the big cellphone brands? Don't hang up on Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung just yet.
Jan 14, 2002 Is Your Brand Everlasting? -- John Karolefski
  We check in on 2001's fallen icons and ask why some stay strong and prosper, while others wither and die.
Jan 7, 2002 Will Online Rx Get Easier to Swallow? -- Edwin Colyer
  As pharmaceuticals struggle to get doctors to take their medicine, they ignore the valuable branding resources available on the web.