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Commercials: Bad taste, good advertisement?

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.