My three-year old daughter has discovered swearing. Three-year old style swearing. Somehow she has discovered that ‘poo’ is different from other words and so occasionally, when you ask what she’d like for tea or what she wants on her toast, she’ll tell you ‘poo’. And then she waits for a reaction. She knows there should be one.
The desire to shock and the pleasure we derive from it seem to be innate in human beings. Shocking people can be fun. Everyone from Marcel Duchamp to the Sex Pistols has made use of it and advertisers are no different. At its best, the shock factor cuts through, causes a bit of a rumpus, attracts plenty of attention to the brand and the product and is brutally effective. At its worst, it’s just a lazy and unimaginative way of getting attention – like burping loudly in a restaurant.
My point is that the advertisers need to value and respect the power of shock. It’s like the force – you have to use it wisely. Equally, the ASA needs to remember that shock is a potent and extremely useful tool in the creative toolbox. Like other forms of public discourse, the opportunity to shock needs to be allowed. The boundaries need to be pushed at. When they are, the dialogue we have with ourselves is more vibrant, exciting and stimulating. Of course, the trouble is that there’s a fine line between what is simply bad taste or offensive and what is shocking in a positive, edifying and life-affirming way.
Recently, billboard ads for the energy drink, Pussy, were banned by the ASA. The striking white 96-sheets featured the lines ‘The drink’s pure. It’s your mind that’s the problem’ and ‘Cunningly delicious’. Arguably, there’s a case to be made that the name of the product is demeaning to women and their anatomy.
I would argue that the ads are clever, creative and not particularly shocking. If the idea of ‘cunnilingus’ is inherently shocking, well then yes, I suppose the second example is outrageous. Indeed, it is our mind that’s the problem – for some reason in the UK, sex and the human anatomy are intrinsically taboo. Certainly not something to be referred to in pubic. Sorry, in public.
Once upon a time, Tango ads were shocking. Yes – a fat orange man slapping people’s faces. Even the Castlemaine XXXX campaign caused a bit of a stir at the time. It is possible to be outrageous, provocative and subversive even with creativity, wit and innovation. When was the last time you were shocked by some advertising? I don’t mean outraged, offended or appalled. I just mean made to sit up a bit, to question, think or challenge your own assumptions? The ASA performs a valuable function but, as far as I can see, there’s just not enough shockingly good work about.