Hard Sell – Advertising in 2008

Would you buy a tin of pork brains in milk gravy? (Hint: the label says it contains 300mg of cholesterol, roughly equivalent of 1,170% of your daily recommended intake)?

Would you buy garden ornaments that are either the bust of a man, hands raised, appearing to be sinking into a quagmire, or alternatively, the hindquarters of a dog, appearing to be digging himself into a hole?

The afore-mentioned products are actually to be found in several online catalogues, together with the statues of holy people from several religions that wave, wink, bless, or otherwise move, over-the-counter medications that promise eternal health, if not exactly eternal life, and cookie-cutters in the shape of foetuses.

In Malta, most of our adverts consist of imported ones, broadcast in their original language, or others that are cobbled together from rehashed (let’s not use the word plagiarised) ideas and given a Maltese slant.

Some adverts are merely shots of an establishment, a product, or a personality… and the irritant factor of the Tal-Lira by Gawdenz Bilocca, which combined all three, made sure that the mini-series was as much a hit as the series that spawned it.

Across the seas and the oceans, however, the picture is literally and figuratively vastly different. Advertisements that are ripped off and rinsed out to the point of inanity locally (because it is supposed that we are not aware of them) are presented in their original state to the advertising standards authorities of the countries in which they originate – and the advertising agencies complain when the adverts are refused.

They argue that the adjudicating panels fail to see the humour or the irony in a clip. But what they do not see is that sometimes, what they classify is such is merely bad taste, and moreover, offensive to a section of the populace.

This year, for instance, there were at least three adverts for condoms that were refused. One of them was a video clip of a toddler throwing a tantrum in a supermarket aisle, embarrassing his father. Another showed a child getting up to all kinds of mischief because his mother would have said (according to him) that he could. The last time we see him, he’s off to put the cat into the washing machine.

The print advert had the articles in question spell out a name and a surname – erroneously, on purpose.

Most of us remember the brouhaha about a male couple living in domestic bliss with the offspring of one of them, who thrived on a particular brand of mayonnaise. Yet not too many people are aware that there was a female couple fronting a campaign to cook dishes using canned soup as a basic ingredient.

A bumph for building block re-created the Twin Towers tragedy; and the one for sports apparel had a woman who practiced sport escaped the wannabe masked murderer (he ran out of breath before she did).

I would have no compunction about giving a Razzie to the photographer who used stills from Guantanamo Bay to advertise his services. The second prize would go tot he bookmaker using images of dear old ladies with mobility problems, on a zebra crossing.

This advertisement was rejected because it was “scary” – so was the one for beer in which a beautiful Labrador, walking a way from a house and sucked up into a spaceship, was revealed to be a hideous alien when he was decapitated… talk about wolves in sheep’s clothing!

Some advertisements involving children, even though they were obviously computer-animations, were disallowed on the premise that youngsters would be tempted to emulate what they saw. So we never got to see the boy who obtained to cans of a cola from a vending machine… and used them as stilts to get one of another brand, the push-button of which was higher than he could reach from the ground. We never saw the pigeon-pair of children who drove – and flew – American-made cars, either.

Entrepreneurs and their advertising gurus were not the only ones who received short shrift from the authorities – the proposals by several NGOs were rebuffed on grounds that they were too explicit, sinister or otherwise over the top.

There was the commuter who imagined dandruff was cocaine; the cigarettes that, again recalled the Twin Tower scenario, and the children’s charity that juxtapose a photograph of a newborn with that of a bottle of methylated spirits to illustrate poverty.

There was the usual spate of advertisements that tried to ride on the familiarity of the Last Supper tableau… and many, many more.

Unfortunately, “creativity” is sometimes understood to mean “schlock” and “shock” rather than ingenuity, inspiration, inventiveness, innovation and imagination.

The fact remains that people vote with their buying power as well as with their will-power. How many of us would actually refuse to purchase a product if the way it is advertised, both locally and abroad, in print and in the audio-visual media, annoys us?

And, conversely, how many of us buy things just because we like the adverts – only to find that the products do not deliver what we thought their ambiguous blurbs were delivering?


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