With mass and social media going to hell, advertising remains surprisingly conservative.

December 21, 2009

Is nothing sacred?

I’ve always taken this phrase to be a reaction to something profane. For example, a scene on TV disgusts us. We comment, “Is nothing sacred?” As a boy, I remember adults crying out at lewd behavior on TV. Another tragedy on the six o’clock news. Archie Bunker saying the “N” word. “Is nothing sacred?”

I grew up and the small screen continued to startle and stun. More channels. More chances at viewing the obscene, profane, unsettling and macabre. Saturday Night Live made it funny. Monty Python even funnier. It got sexy. It got violent. We could not look away and the content only intensified.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

On May 9th, 1961 Newton N. Minow gave a now-famous speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, in which he coined the phrase “vast wasteland.” As some of you know, he was speaking about the relatively new medium of television, chiding broadcasters for not doing more to serve the “public interest.” Here is the oft-quoted portion from that speech:

“When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Prescient words. But he was also asking, “Is nothing sacred?”

Well, Mr. Minow today a new screen serves up content and, pardon my stacking of clichés, but from it we can be taken places above and beyond your wildest dreams and worst nightmares. If TV is a vast wasteland (and Jersey Shore would suggest that it is) then the Internet is Pandora’s Box.  Imagine the world’s worst sicko’s most depraved thought. Then Google it.  Uh huh. Nothing is sacred. The question can now be officially made a declarative.

Ironically, advertising has many lines uncrossed. The many guidelines enforced upon our industry are frayed but still holding. For example, spirits advertising still cannot show the actual consumption of product (though I’m not sure why). They also cannot actively promote sexual experiences as a result of said consumption. Cigarette advertising has been muted considerably and prescription drug advertising is regulated to the hilt. In both style and content, advertising is held to a higher standard (if those are the right words) than anything else found in the medias they support. Go figure.

Even the so-called “frat boys” at CP&B haven’t shown us full frontal nudity or Saw-like violence. Not yet.

In the dozen or so years I ran the Altoids account we certainly pushed the envelope. “Curiously strong” allusions to sex and violence were commonplace. But, as I regularly told the client, Altoids advertising can be kinky but never a turn-on. Shocking, never creepy. I wanted everything “PG.” Better yet, what I called a “witty G.’”

We only violated my criteria once and to this day I still regret it. My guys had come up with a caricature of a soul brother from a seventies blacksploitation movie. The pimped-out dude fronted an Altoids tin. Under him, the headline read: One bad mother pucker. It wasn’t the racial aspects of the ad that bugged me (though one could make a case). We’d successfully parodied black culture before. Altoids negotiated camp flawlessly. (Thank you Mark Faulkner (AD) and Tony D’orio (Photo))

Here we failed. I remember asking the creative team if they’d mind their wives and children seeing such a billboard from the family car. In my opinion the pun was in bad taste. They felt otherwise. And since I like to think of myself as a player’s coach I let the ad pass. Surprisingly, so did the client. (Such was the strength of our relationship.)

There was no public outcry. The ad even won some awards. I don’t care. It was wrong. Ten years later and I still wouldn’t run it. Oddly, rhyming the “F” word wasn’t the problem. (After all, we make light of the four-letter word in our advertising for Effen Vodka.) It was the word “mother” in front of it. That to me was a sacred cow.

To view this particular execution or any other Altoids’ ad, visit their website: Altoids advertising gallery

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6 Responses to “With mass and social media going to hell, advertising remains surprisingly conservative.”

  1. Ernie Schenck said

    For several years now, I’ve written extensively about the increasingly swift desensitation of American culture and the apparent determination of media to bring it down. I’ve called for Creative No-Fly Zones. I’ve suggested that pushing the envelope is all well and good until someone decides to push it over a cliff. It never used to happen. Now it does. And what few seem to realize is that every time we tear off another chip of our collective sense of decency, we inflict terrible damage to our strength as a people, regardless of our race, religion, sex or political philosophy. You’re right. It’s not a question anymore. Nothing is sacred. And it’s a shame.

  2. SRP said

    The “tearing down of our collective sense of decency” is a topic that makes smart people furious. We don’t want to sound like old people yelling at “those damn kids” but it’s ever so painful watching society drool.

  3. Ernie Schenck said

    Very sad when standing up for decency is equated with generational differences. There’s some truth in it though.

  4. Reminds me of a joke Bill Hicks used to tell:

    “Supreme Court says pornography is anything without artistic merit that causes sexual thoughts; that’s their definition, essentially. No artistic merit, causes sexual thoughts. Hmm. . . . Sounds like . . . every commercial on television, doesn’t it?”

  5. adchick said

    It’s certainly true that we’re all very busy one-upping the other to the extent we completely forget what’s really important…ethics, not religion; civility, not competition; kindness, not status. I’m weary of humans and their agenda. Well-written, as usual, Steffan.
    PS. A sincere Merry Christmas to you and your family!!

  6. G. Andrew Meyer said

    I still think it’s funny.

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