Friday, September 2, 2011

F'd Ad Fridays: Offensive salon campaign confuses ads with art

Progressive ad professionals are faced with some real conflicts. On the one hand, we want to be socially responsible contributors to a society of equal rights and respect for all. On the other hand, as part of the creative class, we despise censorship of artistic expression.

So when this months-old campaign from Edmonton suddenly exploded on the ad blogosphere this week as a Copyranter post, it caused quite a bit of anxiety:

The ad appears to make the joke that even though this woman is in an abusive relationship with a man who both beats her and gives her expensive gifts, at least she has a stylish hairdo.

Quite predictably, it caused outrage. How could anyone be so insensitive to such a horrible problem?

The advertiser, however, instead of taking the usual about-face, actually defended the approach:

Store owner Sarah Cameron said the point of the ads was to spark controversy, but they were never meant to target or attack anyone.

“It might strike a chord, but as the way our society and community is getting, we keep tailoring everything because everyone is getting so sensitive,” said Cameron.

“Anyone who has a connection or a story behind anything can be upset or have an opinion. We are not trying to attack anyone.”

Adland provided some context by showing the complete campaign:

Look good even when being frightfully blue collar.

Look good even when turning tricks in an alley.

Look good even when having to deal with icky old people.
Look good even with road rash.
Look good even when... WTF?
The salon accuses detractors of not appreciating the ads' artistic merit:

“We wanted to push limits,” said Cameron.

“You see the picture, you think it’s a nice photo and then you see the controversy.”

“We just like art, and it’s also objective.”
I think she meant subjective. And that's where I see that cognitive dissonance coming into play.

If confronted with this project as a photo essay, and told that someone wanted to stop it from being exhibited, I would probably defend it. Yeah, really. It's disturbing and upsetting and offensive, but that's part of what "art" is supposed to do. Like Mariel Clayton's psychopathic cannibal Barbie work. Art is supposed to make us think and feel things, sometimes awful things.

But this is advertising, and that is the problem. Advertising is not art, no matter how hard we try to claim it is. Advertising is a commercial message designed to promote a brand. And it doesn't have the same protections that "real" art does, because it is bounded by other regulations and expectations.

If unbranded, this photo essay would make a social statement about the superficiality of a looks-obsessed culture that's falling apart. As an ad campaign, it is sleazy and misjudged because it is cynically selling the very looks-obsessed culture the photos would otherwise be critiquing. The headline transforms it from provocative statement to tasteless joke.

What a confusing world we live in.


  1. ..aaand of course it's the purple suede-heeled sex worker who is supposedly dead (murdered?).
    What douchebaggery.

  2. I didn't even notice that detail. Thanks.