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  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.    

[18-Mar-2002]

 
  
  

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

     
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