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Communications on the Edge

Nothing cracks me up like suicide

Nothing cracks me up like suicide

I’m all about edgy. I like dark twisted humor and laugh at jokes that make many people cringe. I nearly always root for the companies that have the balls to do something different and take risks with communications campaigns that push the limits. But I also have learned — occasionally the hard way — there are times when edgy is simply not the right tool for the job. A recent ad campaign by BBDO Dusseldorf and Pepsi provides an awesome example of where edgy is definitely uncalled for. The ads portray a personification of a lonely calorie offing itself in a variety of gruesome ways. The point they are trying to highlight is the joyous fact that Pepsi Max has but one calorie. The violent and graphic images they use overshadow and muddy that point. Not surprisingly, the ads caused quite a stir. Advertising Age wrote all about the ordeal in an online article that circulated very quickly. If you look at the reader comments about the article, you’ll see that most people agree Pepsi made a big mistake – one that Pepsi’s PR team is currently working to correct. Wholesome Pepsi adBut a surprising number of reader comments defended the campaign. Their comments discuss the importance of being edgy, how political correctness has ruined the advertising business (along with everything else) and how those who are offended should simply “get over it.” The overwhelming majority of these comments came from the folks in the creative or graphics segments of the ad biz. Perhaps the apparent lack of judgment and filters is why ad agencies rarely take these guys to client meetings (a shame, really, because those meetings would probably be a lot more fun if they did). What I find most interesting is that the people who stick up for this particular campaign genuinely don’t appear to understand WHY it is such a colossal screw up. But the reason is simple; it strays way too far from the rather whitewashed and benign brand image that Pepsi has spent more than a century working to create.

Goes great with Thai

Pepsi may call itself the “Choice of a New Generation” but, in reality, they have a customer base that extends across hundreds of cultures and virtually every imaginable demographic. And the bigger and more diverse your audience, the greater the chance an edgy campaign will miss its mark and be seen as offensive or even hurtful. With a customer base as big as Pepsi’s, even if an ad like this only drives off one percent of its customer base, you are still talking about a huge number of people. Where Edgy Works It might seem ironic that the very same ads that worked so miserably for Pepsi could actually work fine for a company that is going after a more specific and targeted audience. I even think the title of the Advertising Age story on the issue works fine. It reads “Pepsi Opens a Vein of Controversy With New Suicide Themed Ads.” Even though it is a little tasteless, most of the magazine’s readership probably recognizes it as clever and are able to take it in stride. Edgy for the sake of being edgy doesn’t make sense. But when it works, it works well. There is a great Wired Magazine article about Ian Woolward, who did a bunch of print ads in the early 1990’s that pushed the envelope and arguably crossed the boundaries of good taste. But they worked (at least I thought so). One of his most infamous works appeared in PC Magazine in the early 1990’s. It was part of a series of ads for Logitech. They were a new company that had just come out with a line of ergonomically- correct mice. The purpose of the ad was to underscore how good the mice felt to use. All of the ads were offbeat, but the one that caused the biggest stir was the “peeing baby” concept. On one half of the page was a diapered baby boy laying on his back with a caption that read “feels good.” On the other half of the page was the same baby – this time without the diaper peeing straight up in the air with a caption that read “feels better.”According to Woolward, “the ad really says that the product is fun to buy, fun to use and is fairly sophisticated because the ad itself is sophisticated.” Did the add “piss off” any potential customers? Yes. But Logitech knew this and accepted it from the outset. But it made me curious enough about the product to run out an buy one and I still use Logitech mice to this day. The VW ad below isn’t real. Though clearly designed by professionals, it was (supposedly) a spoof that just happened to get leaked and go viral big time. While the political correctness police would never allow a company like Volkswagen to air such an ad, if they had, I’d probably be joining the creative types and say “just get over it.”