Trial by social media: do DB and Toyota’s pulled ads set a worrying precedent?

In the last few months, two ads have been pulled in response to social media backlash.

The most recent of the pair was DB’s ‘Jean Paul’ clip for Old Mout Hard Cider, which was removed after various members of the public raised concerns that it portrayed transsexual women as liars.

Rather than ignoring the complaints, DB responded—as Toyota did—by removing the ad and posting an apology:

The removal of the ad immediately resulted in a flurry of online commentary divided between two camps: the first applauding the decision of DB in listening to its customers, and the second decrying the influence of political correctness on society.

Neither of these responses is satisfactory. And while humans love a simple answer, as Ben Goldacre’s great book says, I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that

On the one hand, we owe some of the best qualities of our society to political correctness and major societal change starts off in the margins. 

As comedian Stewart Lee explained in a now almost decade-old interview with BBC4: “I’m of an age where I can see the difference political correctness has made. When I was four years old, my grandfather drove me around Birmingham where the Tories had just fought an election campaign saying ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote labour’, and he drove me around saying, ‘This is where all the coons, niggers and jungle bunnies live.’”

Lee explains these things have gradually been eroded from progressive societies because being politically correct, which, as Michael Kinsley wrote in Vanity Fair, is actually “a bit of ancient Communist Party lingo from the 1930s, when it was an approving reference to people who were adhering to the party line”, demands at least some level of politeness between people.  

He continues: “If there is some fallout from this, which means that someone in an office one day gets into trouble for saying something that someone was unsure about, because they couldn’t decide if it was sexist, or homophobic or racist; it’s a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people that political correctness has made.”

DB, like Toyota, took a risk with the subjects of their ads and may have misjudged the level of feeling among the audience. And, seeing the potential long-term damage to the brand, they were essentially publicly shamed into removing their ads and write off tens of thousands of dollars—even more in the case of Toyota—of marketing investment in a bid to appease them (in the case of I Love Ugly, which pulled its sexist campaign after a whole heap of public anger, there can be some perverse short-term benefits of causing controversy, simply because people are made aware of something). 

The problem with these ad-hoc trials by social media is that they don’t actually help to progress advertising standards or the ethical framework upon which they are hinged (Jon Ronson, author of So you’ve been publicly shamed, also points of that the harm caused by social media shaming is often not proportionate to the offence committed). When brands simply pull an ad on the basis of being socially shamed, it means the processes put into place by the ASA cannot be used to determine whether that ad deserved to be pulled or not.  

This was clearly evident in the ASA’s recent response in regard to complaints in the Toyota case, with the chairman ruling the matter “settled” on account of the “self-regulatory action taken by the advertiser in withdrawing the advertisement.” 

ASA chief executive Hilary Souter says that none of the 12 complaints lodged by Kiwis reached the board, because there wouldn’t have been any point in debating the validity of a campaign that had been pulled.

Souter says that while this is “a nod to the self-regulation” the ASA promotes, there is certainly value in having some ads discussed by the board.

Souter raised an example of this point around two years ago at the Magazine Publishers Association Conference, when she spoke about Toyota Hilux’s ‘Bugger’ ad, which was released in 1999. 

At the time of its release, the ad received 120 complaints from Kiwis concerned by the repetitive use of ‘Bugger’ in the ad. 

To put this into context, those aren’t 120 Facebook comments. Those are 120 people who went through the process of laying a formal complaint. We can only imagine the form this outrage would’ve taken if social media were available to those frustrated by the ad. 

After considering the complaints in light of the social context in which the word was used, the ASA board dismissed the case on account of the fact that it was unlikely to cause widespread offence.

Today, ‘Bugger’ has become one of the most well loved spots in the Kiwi advertising canon, and its longevity is at partially due to the fact that it was allowed to run its course.

As a possible corollary of brands pulling ads in response to public shaming, this might result in marketing departments and ad agencies playing it even safer, rather than risking the potential of inciting a social media furore—and, as many have said, the riskiest thing you can do with your marketing money is to make an ad that no-one notices. 

Souter says in the past, media companies and advertisers would generally pass complaints on to the ASA, which would then determine the merits of the issues raised.

But in the age of social media, time is measured in Twitter or Facebook push notifications. And if those notifications are linked to angry messages, the wait for the ASA to make a decision might be a little too long.    

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