Provocative advertising stirs emotions. That’s why it’s made. Emotional responses make adverts work. Provocative advertising doesn’t always ignite positive emotions – they offend some people. And these days, people who have taken offense rarely “suffer in silence”. So while provocative advertising gets talked about, those conversations are often led by the outrage they’ve elicited. Bad news sells.

The Monkeys’ commercial for Grill’d is the most recent casualty of people’s offense. In the spot, that promotes Grill’d’s stance against the environmental “evils” of its competitors in an animated spot that includes a clown (looking for all intents and purposes like a parody of Ronald McDonald) approaching a group of children in an alley, opening his trenchcoat to pull out plastic toys. The AANA deemed it to be “menacing and suggestive of sexualized violence”. In another scene, the clown’s pants fall down but his crotch is covered by a Grill’d flag. That wasn’t judged appropriate either.

I’ve just looked up my reaction to the spot. It was, “The Monkeys and Grill’d are not pulling any punches when it comes to differentiating the chain from the competition. This is brave, provocative advertising that will trigger conversations, no question, and the kind of work that made The Monkeys famous.” I still stand by that.

A couple of weeks ago adam&eve’s commercial for John Lewis home insurance also triggered a storm of offence because it featured a boy wearing his mum’s clothes and make-up. In the middle of a “whoever you want to be is OK”-inclusiveness revolution, the vehemence of the outrage it received was a little strange. Ultimately, the ad was not banned because of complaints made about a boy channeling his inner Stevie Nicks but because it suggested that some of the things the dancing whirlpool broke might be covered by insurance when they were not.

Provocative appears to be a whimsical notion. Showing LGBTQ+ teens and adults is admirable – but a boy has to behave “like a boy”. Showing someone on the toilet and menstrual blood in undies is fine. An animated crotch covered by a flag isn’t. One person’s provocative is another person’s statement or humor.

It does make you wonder about provocative advertising. Does it matter if your campaign turns some people off? So I asked two top creatives. The first is Craig Bailey, executive creative director at Five by Five Global, and creative leader of the most provocative laxative campaign ever made. It’s also the best laxative commercial ever made.

Here is his answer:

In short, no. Our remit as product pushers is to find an insightful golden nugget that talks to the consumers who are most likely to buy what we’re selling. As far as those on the periphery of our audience, well, not every ear is going to agree with the message we’re spruiking. If they were put off because they didn’t like what they saw – damn, we lost a potential customer! Did it affect the KPIs? Probably not; but it did start a conversation. 

If our industry was overly chastised because of a few dissenting voices, creativity would plummet. The product of opinion always produces better work. If everyone agreed on everything all of the time, do you think we’d see new ways of communicating?

Conversely, does it matter if your campaign is inappropriate to some groups, like children? Yes, absolutely; but that is an entirely different question.

Bart Pawlak is executive creative director at 303MullenLowe, the agency that made an outrageous dare-devil famous (and SO popular) with his do not try these at home EVER antics.

Here is his answer:

I think provocative advertising and advertising that ‘turns people off’ are two very different things. One suggests the stirring of strong emotions, whereas the other implies a repulsion of some kind. Given that emotions play such a large part in our engagement and decision-making process, advertising should ideally always strive to make people feel something. But I don’t know how turning them off, in the strictest sense, could ever serve a commercial purpose. Unless, of course, they’re not in your target audience. Then they can get as turned off as they like! In the end, as long as your message resonates with the people it’s intended for, that’s all that matters. Of course, the more provocative, the more important it is to get that right.

What do you think?

The Monkeys & Grill’d dare: This will get Australia talking

OPINION: adam&eveDDB & John Lewis: A sad end for a wonderful commercial (for an unexpected reason)

Five by Five & Prunelax: What a relief



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