It’s night-time. Toxic plumes are being pumped out of industrial chimneys. An image of a crying child cuts through the smoke-smeared sky. Surreal, disturbing, it’s like a batman signal for help from a beleaguered mother earth. After this haunting spectre of aerial gas chambers a logo and web address appear. It is an advert for an air purifier by the company Xao Zhu.
After a few hours the factory that was inadvertently providing the novelty backdrop for Xao Zhu’s projection put a halt to this eerie open air screening. Outdoor advertising -the oldest medium in the book- brings an aura of the real to a campaign’s digital afterlife. Through Xao Zhu’s own channels the smog babies gained over 17 million views and scored $3.1m in media coverage. In a country where thousands of deaths can be traced to airborne contaminants the Chinese company’s intervention is a shining ray of worthy mischief, you might say. But it also raises questions of whether it is right to use the image of suffering babies to sell a product, particularly as the purifiers have not been proven to make a substantial difference to the health of users –infant or adult- in areas with high levels of air pollution.
Any trip through the winding quandaries of the ethically questionable stunt cannot avoid the Paddy Power nadir. Its legendary mischief department has been keeping the Advertising Standards Authority busy for years with its taste-defying antics. There were the odds for the granny road crossing (with a 4×4 looming ominously in the background making it look more like granny squashing); the banned “stallion or mare” ad that asked Ascot attendees to spot “transgendered” ladies among a crowd; and now, a Calais to Dover lorry calling on refugees to hop on-board –but only if you’re good at sport. Let’s leave aside the fact that the central image of Andy Murray as one such gifted immigrant doesn’t actually make sense. The ire and delight of social media were predictably roused in equal measures by this crude hijacking of the Calais refugee crisis. And as ever Paddy was defiant in the face of outrage.
To an extent Paddy’s marketing mischief tells us that in PR now our red lines are in constant recession. Everything is up for grabs- from gassing toddlers to international humanitarian crises. To stand out in the miasma of desensitised aloofness taboos must be thoroughly prodded. Paddy –often characterised as the enfant terrible of campaigning- is only unique in its levels of terribleness. That the complaints pile in is vindication of their efforts.
Even Paddy knows that it doesn’t pay to be controversial all the time. The quality of their mischief is carefully layered so the risky material is followed up with a crowd-pleaser. The absurdist chav tranquiliser at Ascot was released shortly after the transgender gaff. First they shocked with the ‘It’s Oscar Time’ bets on the outcome of the Pistorius trial and then they charmed with Stephen Hawking’s world cup tips. Like Ukip’s ‘shock and awful’ tactics the occasionally divisive intervention is needed to maintain the rebellious aura. But to be offensive all the time would be to risk alienating even their biggest supporters.
While we should consider the emotions stirred by specific campaigns there are bigger questions that the industry needs to ask. Bigger even than Paddy Power. Across the ad world many are guilty of forgetting that ultimately they are selling products. There should certainly be a place for tackling important issues of the day in provocative forms and public spaces – Greenpeace has never shied away from shaking people out of their atrophied ways. But those selling air fresheners have to remember that they aren’t entitled to the same goodwill given to non-profit awareness raisers. For companies negotiating regulated markets -as the fate of cigarette advertising shows- the onus is to be whiter than white. Otherwise the risk of backlash -now and especially in the future- against mischievous behaviour may be more powerful than imagined. Indeed, Paddy powerful.