By Stephan Armstrong
1 Is Volkswagen bold or stupid? Across France, workmen have been busy scraping off 10,000 billboard advertisements for its new Golf following furious complaints from the Catholic Church. In a series of posters, the German carmaker's model was likened to a religious revelation; one that showed Jesus at the last supper recommending the car to his disciples.
2 VW’s agency DDB Needham doubtless thought its advertising was ironic and extremely up-to-date. After all, the admen presumably figured, if outrageous* advertising worked for the likes of Benetton, it could work to revive the image of the Golf, which is frankly rather old-fashioned.
3 After the Catholic Church threatened to sue* for Ffr 3.3 m ($550,000) to obtain reparation for the damage suffered by Christians, the agency and the carmaker confessed to their sins and agreed to remove the ads. “We have no disrespect for the fundamental values of society or for the beliefs of the faithful,” said a spokesperson for DDB Needham. 'We decided to retract the posters immediately in order to show our respect for the faith and the feelings expressed by certain believers.' The agency's penance* has included making a substantial donation to a Catholic charity.
4 European consumers are exposed to hundreds of commercial messages a day, but the vast majority of these are ignored, so ads which shock have become more popular with advertisers. It is believed that these ads force consumers to listen to their message. But some adland thinkers argue that it's a little more complicated than that.
5 Virginia Valentine, director of advertising's foremost cultural analysis company.Semiotic Solutions, argues that brands can no longer expect consumers to take sales messages at face value*. Consumers challenge everything they are told, she believes, and will prefer brands that give them something back, rather than the old-style 'here's our product ain't it great!' philosophy which has dominated advertising since its inception. Thus ads can deal with social issues and refer to the news agenda these days. Inevitably, though, it can go horribly wrong. The risk is, and I think this is true in the case of Volkswagen, that if you use images of faith and prostitute them, people will take offence. It's all very well if you give them something back, but it is clear that Jesus could not have benefited from that poster campaign.'
6 The ad agency, however, may well have done. The VW campaign might look like a marketing disaster, but increasingly ad agencies are selling to clients not simply their ability to write ads but their ability to write ads that generate PR. Some clients ask all agencies pitching for their business to demonstrate their ability to garner* extra publicity.
7 A deliberately shocking ad is the simplest way to get additional media coverage, and even if the media coverage is negative, it can still help to sell the product as advertisers like Benetton have already proved.
8 One supporter of Benetton's work is Leon Jaume, Deputy Creative Director of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, who believes its success lies in knowing its target. 'In marketing terms the only real taboo is upsetting the people you want to buy your product,’ he says. 'As long as it's legal and the client is OK with it, you can offend anyone else and in many ways you should. I'd normally see outrageous advertising as a youth proposition though, and I think VW's mistake may have been in selling a. product that isn't a youth product with this kind of style. Young people are receptive to taboo-breaking as they are more open-minded than older people. I think they positively welcome advertising that annoys their parents.' Some agency creatives argue that young people today are fundamentally different from previous generations in their internationalism, and young consumers in Tel Aviv are closer to their counterparts* in Paris, New York and Sydney than they are to their parents.
9 As this generation grows up, the argument goes; they will continue to be more broad-minded than their parents and will see the shattering of taboos as the norm. So outrageous advertising will no longer be limited to those products which target youth.
10 Perhaps Volkswagen was just ahead of its time, advertising to a marker that wasn't broad-minded enough in a country that still gets nervous when Church and State are challenged. Or perhaps VW's collision with Catholics shows that for all their claimed acumen*, ad agencies are less in touch* with the public mood than they claim.
*outrageous: very shocking
*to sue: to claim money because you have been harmed
*penance: suffering to show you are sorry
*to take smth. at face value: to accept smth. without thinking
*to garner: to collect
*a counterpart: a similar person in a different place
*acumen: the ability to make good judgments
*to be in touch with: to understand