By Alvas Onguru
“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level”. - Bill Bernbach
Advertising has great potential to influence culture.
As an art form, advertising is essentially subjective by nature. One person’s liking could be another’s disgust.
“De gustibus non est disputandum” is a Latin maxim meaning: “In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”.
At least when it comes to advertising.
Lots of ads demonstrate good taste, and everyday we see plenty of examples of really bad taste.
Bad taste in advertising often revolves around the abuse of sex, religion, politics, race, tribalism, bad language/profanity and the three “D”s: Disease, disability and death. (I consider the many ads on Kenyan radio and TV that rely on ethnic humour to be offensive tribal stereotypes)
Advertising that employs bad taste tends to draw attention to itself, rather than to the brand that it is attempting to sell.
A recent example is the Mavuno Church teen sex talk poster.
This poster got a deluge of column inches for Mavuno church. And brought that church into the front and centre of many conversations around the country.
Another maxim says that “All publicity is good publicity”.
Again, I disagree because as advertising practitioners, our role in building brands is to portray them in the best possible light.
Bad publicity for a brand, especially a brand that is intended to engender the emotions of trust, comfort, moral fortitude, etc, like a church should, can be damaging to the brand.
We may not be able to control all conversations around our brands, especially in this viral age of social media, but if we communicate with dignity, respect and intelligence, our audiences will reflect these values back to us.
And vice versa. If our communication is banal and vulgar, the same will be reflected back on our brand.
It is up to us therefore as brand custodians and brand communicators, to determine which values we want to ascribe to our brands.
A recent survey among young adverting creatives in the United States revealed that most young creatives believed that “Sex is cheap”.
It is very easy, they said, to arrive at a sexually suggestive, vulgar, racist or otherwise bigoted idea, but much harder, and more rewarding, to arrive at an idea that is cerebral, well thought through and well crafted.
Sex doesn’t always sell.
As experts who create advertising, we have great power to influence culture and sometimes to even create it. It is our professional responsibility to use this power appropriately.
If we can sell using good taste and sell using bad taste, why use bad taste?
Bill Bernbach said:
“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level”.
It behoves us as creators and promoters of advertising, to influence popular culture by employing imagination, intelligence and persuasion.
And a measure of good taste.
Alvas Onguru is Chief Creative Officer at OG+A. You can follow him on Twitter: @alvas