Why Edgy Marketing Puts Marketers on Edge

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Ashton Kutcher starred in a Popchip's advertisement which was later removed after complaints of racism.

It all came down to a not-so-innocent nativity scene. Last week, Delta Airlines pulled ads from the Daily Show after the Catholic League complained about an image of a naked women with a manger between her legs.

Delta Airlines did not confirm the reason for the pulled sponsorship. But the Catholic League had been flooding Daily Show advertisers with the image. “We are pleased with Delta’s response,” said Catholic League president Bill Donohue in a statement. Donohue has turned his attention to Kellogg’s, also a Daily Show sponsor.

The incident follows a number of high-profile marketing gaffes. Earlier this month, Ashton Kutcher’s Popchips ad was pulled after “Raj,” a Bollywood actor Kutcher parodied, was deemed a racist caricature. In April, a Burger King spot in which Mary J. Blige sang the praises of crispy chicken wraps was criticized for promoting African American stereotypes and was promptly pulled. And lest you think that only Americans practice this style of political correctness, note that eight American Apparel billboards recently were banned in the UK after the Advertising Standards Authority received a complaint that the company’s provocative images were “pornographic,” “exploitative” and “inappropriately sexualized young women.”

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The ubiquity of these flubs only suggests that more are inevitable. The speed with which corporations scrap meticulously planned campaigns or years-long relationships after a key constituency complains shows a willingness to factor such blunders into the cost of doing business.

So why do corporations so willingly throw away resources and business alliances for content that straddles the line of good taste? “Edgy” is now a cultural requirement. The array of digital content invites new opportunities to engage users and audiences, either positively or negatively. As a result, executives are not afraid to offend. Even a PG movie is not immune. In late-night interviews promoting The Muppets, Miss Piggy discussed “penetration” and “handcuffs” when asked about her relationship with Kermit.

“Brands are more open to trying new things now. There’s a general hunger for innovative content,” said Mesh Flinders, an advertising consultant who co-created the fictional web series lonelygirl15. “But with that territory comes a certain amount of risk.”

Traditional ways of reaching an audience seem to no longer suffice. The economy is rebounding, but still uncertain. Brands are scrambling to attract recession-scarred consumers who have embraced free content, group buys and bargain hunting. As a result, there’s a premium on ambitious storytelling and campaigns.

But there’s also a sensitivity to content that crosses the line. As the sponsorship pulls demonstrate, top brands don’t want to be associated with raunchy, provocative or morally questionable content that offends sensibilities. Of course, the motivation to pull a sponsorship is usually a public relations debacle, rather than an effort to instill the brand with a sense of virtue and wholesomeness.

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The growing dominance of social media heightens this dynamic. Good will can flip instantly. All it takes to lose dollars is an uproar on Twitter or Facebook that embarrasses, waters down or ruins a brand. Negative trending on social media platforms can be impossible to undo. A book called #FAIL even chronicles the 50 top social media screw-ups.

Advertising has always been about standing out. For years, a Fortune 500 company such as Coca-Cola could get away with running a touchy-feely promo that associated it with, say, singing in perfect harmony. In the 1980s, around the time of the sensational success of Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” ad, brands began increasingly to use humor in their efforts to attract consumers. Two decades, they covet a sensibility with its roots on Comedy Central and the Cartoon Network.

The social web complicates the modern pursuit–and embrace–of edginess, which is a Catch-22. But brands desperate for attention are obviously prepared for battle.

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