Commercials: Bad taste, good advertisement?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Harvey Nichols is the latest big brand to blur the line between edgy and offensive in its new ad campaign – and it's far from alone. Tim Walker finds out whether going over the top always pay off

On Tuesday, a post appeared on the Facebook page for the condom manufacturer Durex, purporting to be an advertisement for its core product: an image of a woman's mouth, patched up at the corners with sticking plasters; a box of Durex XXL condoms; and the tagline "Really Big...". In fact, the image was originally a 2007 print ad for Burger King's "Real Big Burgers", repurposed by an internet wag in 2009 and published on the Durex page in 2012 by some tone-deaf social-media operative, who'd also commented: "Poor woman (or maybe a lucky one?)." When the complaints started flooding in, the post was quickly removed.

Somebody at Durex, though, thought it would be sensible to put it there in the first place. And a lot of irate tweeters were convinced it was real. (Not least because, er, it appeared on the official Durex Facebook page.) Edgy, boundary-pushing, occasionally downright offensive advertising is now what we expect from brands, be they "Really Big" or just regular. Last week, Harvey Nichols faced criticism for its latest press and poster campaign, in which a series of well-turned-out models appear to have wet themselves at the announcement of a half-price sale. This followed the firm's Christmas television advert, "Walk of Shame".

Paddy Power's TV ad "Spot the Stallions from the Mares" invites punters to identify transgender gentlemen among the women in the crowd at the Cheltenham festival; it was banned in May by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), after more than 400 complaints. The bookmaker makes a virtue of such censure: its "Blind Football" spot was the most complained about commercial of 2010, while "Chav Tranquilizer" never even made it to TV screens. (But it is on YouTube.)

"Paddy Power has a history of controversial," Claire Beale, the editor of Campaign, says. "It generates PR, press and social-media chatter. Being banned is an advertising strategy, and for Paddy Power it may be a legitimate one. But the Harvey Nichols [advert] is a bad misfire. It's crass and juvenile. I'm sure they set out to surprise people. I don't think they set out to cause widespread offence."

Advertising history contains a healthy seam of the edgy and/or offensive, from Benetton's shock ads in the 1980s and 1990s, to Channel 4's "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier" billboards. Of course, what people are offended by can be surprising. The most complained about ad campaign of all time was recently revealed to be one for KFC where office workers were seen singing with their mouths full.

Social media has accelerated the trend, egging on agencies and their clients to press ever harder at the limits of taste, in pursuit of YouTube hits and the disapproval of the Daily Mail. And the protests encourage them: three of the ASA's 10 Most Complained About ads of 2011 were made by the agency Adam & Eve, for the mobile phone merchants Phones 4U. As Private Eye's "Ad Nauseam" column recently reported, in the week the list was published, Adam & Eve was bought by a US group, for £60m.

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Graduate Sales Executive

17.5k + Commission (£18.5k after probation period): ESI Media: You will be res...

PPC Account Managers

£25k - £30k (DOE): Guru Careers: Two expert PPC Account Managers are needed to...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn