Racism, sexism and suicide – ad agencies are using controversy to win awards

In this guest post, Hari Ramanathan suggests that the recent spat of controversial ads shows agencies trying to shock as awards season approaches.

Hari Ramanathan

According to their corporate mantra, Innocean wants to be known as the ad agency that ‘Makes Waves’. Well, boy did they succeed.

The whole controversy – sparked by an ad made for Hyundai that featured a man attempting kill himself –  has rightly blasted what is essentially a bad idea. But it also reflects a malaise that is afflicting the industry as a whole; creative people who equate shock to success, and a short cut to ‘creative’ awards and therefore proof that they are ‘creative’.

This culture has got out of hand and is one of the key reasons why some agencies are losing their status as important partners to their clients.

The most racist ad ever?

The most racist ad ever?

We’ve seen other ads land agencies and their clients in trouble recently. The General Motors ad for Chevy with the “Land of Fu Manchu” jingle did not go down well in China this week. Only yesterday, Pepsi pulled an ad for Mountain Dew that has been called the most racist ad ever, and was also criticised for making light of violence towards women. And of course that Ford ad that caused outrage in India and beyond for using images of women bound and gagged in the trunk of a car.

What do these controversies tell us about our industry? To me, they suggest that creatives wallow in a self-referencing world, where each one of them is trying to out-‘shock’ the other to win at awards shows like Cannes.

And what is the result? Work that, barring a few exceptions, doesn’t reflect any understanding of a client’s business. Nor does it ensure that ideas have, at their heart, a truth about the people who are going to use the product or service. These have been relegated to the planners’ decks and never the twain shall meet.

Now back to Hyundai. One might assume that Asian brands, especially Korean ones, have little appetite for this sort of approach, as they’re perceived to be culturally more ‘traditional’. And at least officially it seems this was the case as Innocean’s official apology states that the ad was produced without ‘Hyundai’s request or approval’.

But this view that Asians are more ‘conservative’ is corrupting advertising in Asia, as creatives try to live up to ‘Western’ ideals and standards of creativity. The domination of western sensibilities at almost all the international award shows means that only ads that meet the western ideals of humour and shock win.

This problem is so acute there are scores of creatives in Asia who now feed themselves on a steady diet of Cannes Reels, One Show Annuals and D&AD books trying to ‘outwit’ the entries in the book. This is creating a very unhealthy self-referencing industry that now doesn’t merit the time of anyone truly important on the client side. Visit agencies in Bangkok, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and you’ll find an amazing number of people in the creative team who don’t even speak the language of the country.

This is not an anti-western rant by any means. It’s a reflection on how the industry needs to reinvent itself to understand that Asia will need to create its own set of benchmarks and definitions of ‘creativity’ so that they don’t become culturally immune to the milieu in which they live.

People will trot out Thai humour as evidence of how this is not true, and how they win at Cannes with their own unique brand of humour. Or indeed how humour and entertainment are universal languages, as proven by the ‘success’ i.e. virality of ‘Old Spice’.

These people need to be reminded of exactly what percentage of ads winning at Cannes are non-English (they all have translated copy and English voice overs put into layouts at great expense. And most importantly why is it that in a world where there’s more written word than ever before (blogs, tweets, texts, Harry Potter books, hell even cartoon movies have more dialogue than ever) advertising is the only area where ‘copy’ is deemed to have died and moved visual.

It’s certainly not because people don’t want to read (an ironic accusation for a medium like print, which appears in vehicles that people buy to read – newspapers, magazines etc.,). It’s because creative teams across the non-English-speaking world are trying to appeal to English-speaking judges, and intelligent copy in Thai or Mandarin will never get you into the D&AD – never mind if a million Thais appreciate and like it.

It’s about time we went back to the core of what made this industry great – creative people at the forefront of the agency who are at pains to understand their client’s business issues, and realise that their job is to help brands make a connection with real people. And do this wherever these people are – which sure as hell is not in the Gutter Bar.

The Hyundai debacle was an unmitigated disaster on many levels. But for our industry, the biggest crime was that it made every client who was on the cusp of buying brave work – based on genuine insights and a strong creative idea – think twice.

Hari Ramanathan is regional strategy director at Y&R Asia


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