Sex ad was not only risque, it risked the industry's reputation

Do you media agency people ever have trouble explaining to "normal" people what you do for a living?

Tess Alps, chief executive of Thinkbox
Tess Alps, chief executive of Thinkbox

My mate, Jonathan Durden, used to get so frustrated trying to explain what a planner does that he resorted to telling his aunties that he made Coronation Street, something they could relate to more easily. Occasionally, something happens that provides a brilliant illustration of what planning is, but, sadly, it's usually when something goes wrong.

Last week's Advertising Standards Authority ban of the Advanced Medical Institute's campaign that posed the question "Want Longer Lasting Sex?" in big neon letters on 48 sheets, is a classic example of media planning gone bad.

In the right medium, at the right time, to the right people there would be nothing offensive about that message at all.

I did smile when I heard the institute is based in Australia. I suggest you have a go at saying the line with a Melbourne accent, with or without the addition of "cobber" at the end, and you'll find it sounds authentically antipodean.

What constitutes offence is a tricky subject. We have recently seen far too much manufactured outrage at media events that were not offensive at all to the people who actually saw/heard/read the offending content and to whom it was targeted.

Not that volumes of complaints should be the only criterion when it comes to judging offence, but when we have people complaining about things they have not even experienced themselves, we are on a slippery slope to censorship and bland uniformity.

The Advanced Medical Institute case though, was surely cut and dried. I remember driving past the poster in West End Lane as groups of kids shuffled past it going to school and wondering how on earth it had been allowed to get through the system.

Maybe there isn't a system. Or maybe the normal system had been suspended because of the crisis in ad revenues.

What was institute's media agency thinking? It's quite possible that it was planned cynically, knowing it would create some outrage and, with it, some free publicity.

What was Titan thinking? Maybe it was just taking the money or possibly thinking it would prove something about its medium's ability to "cut through".

If either did think along those lines, they were putting important principles at risk for the sake of short-term gain: the self-regulatory system that we operate under, the stature of outdoor and, ultimately, the reputation of the advertising industry itself. They should have asked themselves: "Want longer-lasting advertising?"

Tess Alps is chief executive of Thinkbox
tess.alps@haymarket.com

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