News Analysis: How shock ads put PR in the spotlight

What role can PR play in ensuring a controversial ad gets positive coverage? In the wake of the banning of ads from Reebok and KFC, Donna Werbner finds out.

Sex, violence and religion were the topics most likely to get an advertisement banned last year by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for offensive content. In comparison, bad manners do not appear particularly controversial. But KFC recently found itself on the receiving end of a record 1,671 complaints to the ASA for an ad featuring call-centre workers singing with their mouths full of fried chicken.

The ad outraged family viewers who felt it encouraged children to talk and sing while eating.

Yet KFC's UK PR agency Freud Communications tells PRWeek that the controversy, which made national headlines and stirred up debate in the media, came as a 'surprise to everyone'.

Despite knowing that the ad was targeting families and young people, the agency says it did not anticipate it would create offence and had not prepared a crisis management strategy to deal with the potential media fall-out.

'We were aware of the advert at the script stage and didn't recommend against it,' says Freuds director Oli Wheeler. 'It was not intended to offend, it was intended to be funny.'

Other companies openly admit they create controversial ads to generate media coverage. Channel 4, for example, deliberately set out to create contentious debate with its press and poster ads for the TV series Shameless, portraying the cast eating Christmas dinner in a parody of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper.

It was last year's most complained about non-TV ad but C4 PROs emphasise that it was not intended to cause offence, merely 'controversy'.

Prepared for complaints

'We were aware that some people would find it contentious, and we prepared a statement in advance because we felt that some people would have a problem with it,' says C4 press officer Chloe Dunbar.

'Any (religious) depiction can be perceived as blasphemous and we anticipated that because Christ was in the Last Supper it would get press enquiries - but we did not create it to cause offence,' she argues.

The statement, she insists, did not attempt to 'whip up controversy' as part of the show's publicity drive but simply sought to explain the reasons behind the depiction of the scene.

In total contrast, Ryanair's press office will work closely with the company's marketing and advertising teams to 'shamelessly exploit any controversy' around the launch of Ryanair ads in the media. The low-cost airline's press ad - headlined 'FAWKing Great Offers!' and promoting deals for 5 November - was criticised by the ASA last year. Dublin-based head of comms Peter Sherrard said it is all about 'getting more bang for your buck.'

'We're about noise creation,' he explains. 'We use the controversy to drive the news story and then lower down the press release we explain how the advert is intended to communicate our key messages, like our lower fares.'

He would draw the line, he says, at trying to capitalise on a banned ad. But some companies intentionally set out to get their adverts banned and deploy increasingly clever PR tactics surrounding this, says Seventy Seven PR associate director James Gordon-MacIntosh.

'Companies might try to organise a guerrilla campaign to create "anti-word of mouth", for example by setting up a website dedicated to banning the advert,' he says.

One of the most controversial TV ad campaigns this year was Reebok's 'I Am What I Am', starring rapper 50 Cent, which was criticised for glamorising gun culture. Although the advert was given a 9pm watershed because of its violent content, Reebok's PR firm Cake said its client did not believe there would be complaints and invited 50 Cent to the press launch, highlighting his role in the ad as a survivor of nine gunshots. It was then withdrawn because, according to Cake, Reebok discovered post-broadcast that it was offensive to a 'small number' of viewers. It was later banned by the ASA but is still available online, where banned ads often exert a strong pull on consumers.

Not so naive

'To think that advertising agencies and clients are so naive that they do not anticipate when their ads will cause offence is asking a lot,' argues Frank PR founder Graham Goodkind.

He adds: 'The reality is, if they admitted they'd created a controversial ad to get publicity, the story wouldn't run as long - they use denial, shock and amazement that the advert has caused offence to further fan the flames of a story, and the media love it.'

Euro RSCG Leedex account manager James Crawford agrees that this is the best strategy to take. 'As long as you have a daring client who is not likely to backtrack publicly when challenged about the controversy then you can usually pull it off,' he says.

But he warns: 'The danger always is that no matter how dogmatic and pugnacious your client, the messages from the controversy can overtake the point you are trying to make.'

Here PR can play a crucial role within the marketing mix. 'PROs should advise their clients when an advert has the potential to damage the brand,' says Gordon-MacIntosh. 'At the moment, PR is only brought in if something goes wrong, or PROs are often presented with ads they have to exploit - we don't have a lot of creative input.'

If PR is ever to be anything more than a safety net, PROs must sit at the marketing table and discuss ads as equals with those who create them.

When companies engage in bad manners, it is sure to spell headaches for their publicists.

TEN CONTROVERSIAL ADS FROM 2004

- Mr Kipling Mince Pies - Mary gives birth in a church hall nativity

play to demonstrate that Mr Kipling is better at cakes than directing

(806 complaints to ASA: BANNED)

- Virgin Mobile - Toilet attendant helps a man to urinate, promoting

Virgin's customer service (459)

- Land Rover - Woman uses a gun as a starting pistol (361: BANNED)

- Trojan Condoms - Woman simulates having an orgasm (317)

- C4 Shameless - Poster parodies Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper to

publicise Christmas episode (264)

- Schering Health Care - Morning-after pill advertised as 'immaculate

contraception' (182: BANNED)

- Wall's Sausages - Dog jumps at closed window in bid to reach sausages

(174)

- Muller Rice - Man attempts to catch a budgie between two slices of

bread (142)

- Newspaper Marketing Agency - Man is depicted impaled on a stiletto

(81: BANNED)

- Armani Junior - Shows topless child wearing Armani (74: BANNED)

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