Claire Beale on Advertising

How a can of worms made Heinz lose its taste for a little controversy
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The Independent Online

Oh what a week it's been for advertisers losing their balls. First Heinz: the nation's culinary accompaniment of choice and now target of ire for the gay community. Heinz, Heinz, Heinz, how did you manage to get yourselves in such a stew?

Here's the story. A week or so ago, Heinz launched a new ad campaign for its Deli Mayo brand. Nothing to get excited about, you'd think. And sure enough the Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO campaign starts out blandly enough. Kids line up in the kitchen to collect their packed lunches, a tiresomely familiar scene in advertising kitchens across the land.

But instead of mom making the lunch, there's a New Yorker in a chef's hat spreading the baps, just like your downtown deli. Still, the kids call him "mom" and when Dad comes in to say goodbye, "mom" demands a kiss and a dry marital-duty kiss follows. Between two men.

Cue explosion. People complained. Of course. They always do at the slightest hint of homosexuality. It's improper, embarrassing, what if children are watching. So 200-odd outraged viewers fumed at the Advertising Standards Authority and a contrite Heinz pulled the ad.

Cue explosion. The gay community (and most of the rest of us) obviously can't see what's wrong with showing two men kissing and Heinz's decision to pull the plug was seen as tacit support for homophobes everywhere.

Heinz is one of those homespun blue-collar brands that is a staple of our national diet. Its ketchup has just been voted by consumers as the brand with the most "equity", for goodness sake, after scoring highest against measures such as familiarity and quality. So how did Heinz get it so wrong with this ad?

Having been bold enough (or naive enough ... you choose) to sign-off a script in which two men's lips meet, Heinz was careful to make the whole gay thing a "joke": it's not as though either of the men in the ad is obviously meant to be gay, they both look so straight you could draw a line with them.

But adland knows full well that any suggestion of homosexuality in ads will hit some pressure points (reason enough, you might think, to challenge prejudices). Controversy will have been fully anticipated, and this ad will have been thought through thoroughly before the play button was pushed.

Which makes it all the more astounding, and disappointing, that Heinz was so easily cowed when the inevitable complaints tumbled in. The company wasted no time in sheepishly withdrawing the commercial. Which naturally sparked another row, this time with gay groups: Stonewall and the radio station Gaydar called for a global boycott of Heinz brands in protest.

Really, Heinz couldn't have stirred up more controversy if they'd tried – and a few cynics out there think maybe they did try, that the whole gay saga that dominated marketing headlines last week was a massive PR stunt. If it was, it backfired big time.

What's certainly true is that Heinz has proved itself to be too easily swayed, spineless even. Of course, for all its careful and sensitive self-regulation, sometimes adland gets it wrong and misjudges the nation's mood; advertising that causes genuine and understandable offence should be swiftly withdrawn.

But really, Heinz had an opportunity here to take an enlightened position, to defend the inoffensiveness of a (pretty dispassionate) kiss between two men. If we believe that advertising not only reflects society and its culture but helps shape it, then there are times when advertisers have to take responsibility for the influence they wield.

Heinz may argue that in responding to the complaints and withdrawing the ad it is doing exactly that. But it doesn't seem to have thought carefully enough about the wider message its actions might have sent out: that tacit endorsement of a gay relationship is something to be embarrassed about, to regret. And that's a very dangerous position for one of the nation's favourite brands to find itself in. Advertisers without balls part two: This time it's car giant Fiat who controversially found itself apologising for one of its ads.

Picture this: Richard Gere (actor and famous Buddist) drives a Lancia from Hollywood to the Polata Palace in Tibet, former residence of the Dalai Lama. There he's greeted by a child monk and they both make hands prints in the snow, just like those of the movie stars outside Hollywood's Chinese Theatre. The strapline is "the power to be different".

It's a bloated, self-satisfied commercial by French agency Marcel, but it's also managed to anger the Chinese, even though it didn't run in China itself. The Chinese reckon the ad promotes Tibetan independence and carries a political message. Cue embarrassed Fiat U-turn that distances itself from Gere's "social and political views". An official statement said: "Fiat Group extends its apologies to the Government of the People's Republic of China and to the Chinese people."

Did it occur to Fiat that casting an actor known to be a campaigner for Tibetan independence might be a little inflammatory? If not, it absolutely should have, though it would be nice to think that Fiat considered the possibility it might cause offence and decided to go ahead anyway.

So it's disappointing that Fiat then felt the need to issue an official apology. Mind you, they're still running the ad. Perhaps saying sorry had more to do with the size of the potential Chinese car market rather than genuine regret.

And now for a creative with balls: Tiger Savage.

There are very few female creative directors in adland, so the ones there are have to be pretty special, one way or another: Kate Stanners at Saatchi & Saatchi, Rosie Arnold at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Tiger Savage at M&C Saatchi. There's no doubt that creative departments drip testosterone, so all respect to any woman that makes it through.

Particular respect, this week, to Savage, who has bared thighs and soul in the latest issue of creative mag Shots.

Faced with some tough but frankly necessary questions about her label-obsessive appearance, or her dusty trophy cabinet, Savage gives some typically spunky answers. Here's one: "It's very easy for people not to look beyond the external physical appearance – shoes, handbags and hats all tell a story. I guess it often feels like everyone knows the "Tiger Brand, but very few people know the real me."

As you might expect, the article has sparked a free-for-all on the industry's blogs, with too many people rushing in to give Tiger a bit of a lashing (encouraged, no doubt, by the terrifyingly sexy bondage stuff she's wearing).

So, suddenly everyone's talking about Tiger. She's more famous (again) than most of her male contemporaries and the next ad with her name on it will get bags of attention. Which all seems rather smart to me.

Claire Beale is editor of 'Campaign'

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