Claire Beale on Advertising: An industry bruised by its own hand

Trust the ad industry to kick off the new year in some style. Last week a new campaign which set out to prove the power of advertising imploded embarrassingly under the weight of a serious consumer backlash. And the ad business found itself, bloodied and bruised, under siege. Again.

The cause of all the trouble was a campaign launched by the poster industry and its ad agency Beta. You might have seen it. If you did you'll remember it, which was the whole point. The copy read "Career women make bad mothers. Agree?" (note, it was a question, not a definitive statement) and it ran on more than £1m worth of poster sites last week

No question it was a deliberately inflammatory piece of copy, designed to make us angry enough or intrigued enough or sympathetic enough to go to the web address quoted on the poster, Britainthinks.com, and post a response. It worked. More than 10,000 people went to the website over the first two days the campaign ran. But within hours the might of social networking site mumsnet proved how powerful social media can be in mobilising people behind a cause, and a vitriolic and passionate forum on the site was soon in full flow.

Mumsnet commentators threatened to boycott advertisers who used poster sites, to boycott advertisers who used the Beta agency, and to write to MPs to voice their disgust that such an offensive sentiment should be allowed a public platform. And there were dozens of vicious personal attacks on the people who created the campaign, particularly Beta's founder Garry Lace.

In the end the poster industry clearly felt it had no choice but to pull the offending ad and by Wednesday last week the posters were on their way to the recycling depot. Predictably a backlash against the backlash followed, with a new wave of impassioned voices demanding freedom of speech and criticising the poster companies for capitulating.

By then, though, the whole affair had proved that posters can have real standout, can create debate, and can drive people to a website. It had got us all talking about posters, and when was the last time we did that? The marketers at whom this campaign was principally aimed will certainly have got the message and won't be too worried about the ruckus that followed. And Beta, an ad agency founded less than a year ago, has scored some PR points.

But in truth a controversial campaign like this running in any medium could have generated a similar response, given the powerful voice of consumers in our digital world. It can take just one offended person to mobilise an entire online community; consumers now have control.

So marketing campaigns need to be more sensitive than ever to possible causes of offence and smart marketers know that they must get their key online communities onside before they do almost anything else. The poster industry seems naïve to have disregarded such fundamental principles.

More worryingly, though, the poster industry has a vital role to play in ensuring that our billboards don't carry offensive or misleading messages; it's not just embarrassing but rather disturbing that they've managed to run one themselves. It all proves, once again, how bad the advertising industry often is when it comes to advertising itself.

All is not lost, though. Beta, whose property the Britainthinks website actually is, now needs to use the forum it has created to do something genuinely positive with the debate it has begun. It is unacceptable that this should simply be about stoking controversy for the sake of selling posters.

And perhaps the poster medium can find a way to redeem itself too. How about offering its unsold sites free to a worthy women-related cause? Who knows, it might even be able to demonstrate the power of poster advertising into the bargain.

Best in Show: directgov (MCBD)

It's not a fertile period for great new advertising campaigns. Well, who's got any money? Unless you're a holiday firm riding on our dreams of sun before the credit card bills arrive, it's not a great time to be advertising. Thank heavens for the government, then, which is still out there doing its bit for society (and the advertising industry) by pumping out some ads. This latest for directgov, by MCBD, is a quirky little campaign packed with an unlikely collection of celebrities such as Kelly Brook, left, and Christopher Biggins as a rather disturbing baby, telling us about what we'll find on the directgov site. Strangely watchable, with bags of impact and it's not after our money.

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