On Advertising: Why Microsoft ran scared from a Family Guy

According to Euripides, you can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps.

According to 21st-century marketing lore, you can tell a lot about a company from the company it keeps. So advertisers are becoming increasingly aware that the editorial environment in which their ads appear says an awful lot about the values of their brand.

Take Microsoft. Less than a month ago it announced (with appropriate levels of hysterical excitement) that it was going to sponsor a TV variety show produced by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of cult cartoon series Family Guy. It was one of those stories that got the rest of the marketing industry scribbling notes. Not only was this a bold initiative by Microsoft, but it represented a real marketing first.

The idea was to create an original piece of branded entertainment, mixing live-action with animation and guest appearances, branded throughout by Windows. So there'd be segments on how easy the new Windows 7 is to use or how fast it operates.

I know it doesn't sound like a bundle of laughs, but Family Guy fans would trust MacFarlane to pull it off. And it sounds like he did... perhaps a bit too well. Because Microsoft is now running scared and has abruptly pulled out of the project after discovering that (in characteristic MacFarlane fashion) the show contained some, ahem, sensitive material.

According to Variety magazine, Microsoft was traumatised by the show's "riffs on deaf people, the Holocaust, feminine hygiene and incest". Liberals criticised Microsoft for being oversensitive and weak. And for implying that their target consumers are by definition uncomfortable with anything cutting-edge, experimental, creative (presumably qualities that Microsoft was hoping to appropriate through the Family Guy association in the first place).

But leaving aside Microsoft's ridiculous naïvety in assuming that MacFarlane and his team would ever produce something anodyne and inoffensive, plenty of advertisers will have much sympathy for their stance. No big company wants to damage its brand equity by getting caught in the crossfire of editorial controversy.

We live in a consumer-empowered digital world that gives instant, amplified voice to the easily offended, and in which ordinary people are quickly mobilised behind a cause. These days a single offended consumer can work up a global fire-storm by leveraging the power of the internet; the risks for any advertiser even within sniffing distance of offensive material are higher than ever.

Last month a Facebook page was set up to demand that consumers lobby brands whose ads appeared around Jan Moir's Daily Mail column on Stephen Gately. The Facebook page urged those advertisers to withdraw their commercial support for the Mail. The speed and strength with which advertisers including Marks & Spencer and Nestlé responded to such pressure was evidence of how sensitive brands have become to consumer opinion.

Of course it's right that advertisers should seek to place their commercial messages within media environments that match their corporate and brand values. That's a key plank of advertising strategy. But there's a new danger here, too, from this heightened sensitivity to our complaining culture.

Do we really want advertisers to be part of a debate about the rights or wrongs of the editorial context in which their messages appear?

After all, advertising plays a vital role in funding the UK's relatively diverse media landscape. If advertisers are pressured into steering clear of any media environment that could possibly cause offence, a sort of censorship will result. Those media that rely on advertising revenue for their existence will be more wary (than they already are) of provoking, of challenging, of risking a backlash. Advertisers should think very carefully before they allow themselves (and their budgets) to moralise on editorial issues. As Microsoft is likely to find to its cost, in the end consumers won't thank them for it.

Best in Show - Weetabix (WCRS)

In a world of endlessly exciting cereal choices, Weetabix is the boring goody-goody on a shelf stacked with racy, sugary, crunchy, chocolatey breakfast highs. It's a brand in need of a marketing make-over. And it's just got one, in the form of a silly-funny, entertaining new TV ad from WCRS. The commercial is about a jockey who, after his horse falls at the first fence, goes on to win the race on foot. Because he's had his Weetabix, see? It's a lovely ad with a real lightness of touch that is so rare for this category. Yummy.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
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

Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Publishing

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn