Is “Edgy” Marketing Too Edgy To Last?

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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 has 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. Last week, 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. The US is not alone. 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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As of late, sponsorship pulls have become de rigueur. AT&T, H&M and 25 others severed ties with Village Voice Media because the company’s back-page classifieds have been linked to child sex trafficking. Dozens of sponsors retreated from Rush Limbaugh’s show after he called law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for urging insurers to cover contraceptives. Late last year, Lowe’s pulled ads from American Muslim, a reality show about families who practice Islam, because a group advocating “traditional, Biblical values” complained.

The merits of the ad and sponsor pulls have been debated. But the ubiquity of these flubs only demonstrates 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 standard. 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, a freelance advertising consultant who co-created the fictional web series, lonelygirl15. “But with that territory comes a certain amount of risk.”

It’s not terribly surprising. Traditional ways of reaching an audience 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 so-called raunchy, provocative or morally questionable content that offends sensibilities for very long. Of course, the motivation 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 increasingly cultivated humor in their efforts to attract consumers. Within two decades, brands would covet a sensibility more often found on Comedy Central and the Cartoon Network.

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