Julian Gratton

TV adverts that kicked up a political storm

“Utterly disgraceful…disgusting to the point of being nauseating…cheap and disrespectful propaganda!” It’s fair to say that Daily Mail readers didn’t like it one bit: a 90 second TV commercial, commissioned by the Argentinian government, showing an Argentinian athlete, training for the Olympic games. No problem with that, you might say. But here’s the rub. This chap (Argentinian Hockey Captain, Fernando Zylberberg to be precise) wasn’t training down his local sports centre. Oh no. He was training in the Falkland Islands capital of Port Stanley, on a war memorial built to honour British servicemen who died in World War 1. Not only that, the TV ad concludes with the slogan, “to compete on English soil, we train on Argentinian soil.”

And there in lies the problem. The Falkland Islands, as everyone knows, are recognised as a self-governing British Overseas Territory, under British sovereignty (though the Argentinian’s dispute this). The TV commercial was aired following months of political bickering between London and Buenos Aires over the issue. And it’s that slogan which got the normally level-headed and reasonably minded readers of the Daily Mail up in arms.

And they weren’t the only ones. Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was quick to label the TV ad a “sad stunt,” while Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond called it, “tasteless, provocative and very insulting to the many British soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives protecting the Falkland Islands.” Their ire was so great in fact, that even Sir Martin Sorrell, the head of communications giant, WPP (whose agency Young & Rubicam produced the ad), was forced to issue an apology.

Boris Johnson, gay-friendly crusader

Of course, it’s not the first time in 2012 that an advert has sparked political debate. Just a few weeks earlier, Mayor of London Boris Johnston, intervened to prevent a Christian advertising campaign from promoting the idea that gay people can be converted to heterosexuality.

The adverts were booked on behalf of the Core Issues Trust, a charity that funds “reparative therapy” for gay Christians and claims it can “develop their heterosexual potential”. The advert was due to say: “Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!” Just days before the posters were due to appear on buses in the capital, Johnson ordered his transport chiefs to pull them.

To put the ads into context, we need to go back to 2009, when gay rights group launched a striking poster campaign that appeared on 20 major railway stations advertising screens and on 3,500 interior bus panels. The ads proclaimed: “Some people are gay. Get over it!” and were endorsed by politicians and celebrities alike. Clearly this uncompromising statement was not to the Core Issues Trust’s taste, hence their high profile riposte. But the Mayor was unequivocal, “London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance. It is clearly offensive to suggest that being gay is an illness that someone recovers from and I am not prepared to have that suggestion driven around London on our buses.”

Now, maybe it’s just coincidence, but this whole episode took place just weeks before the London Mayoral election. Could it be that, knowing that vote would be a close run thing, Johnson made a point of doing something explicitly liberal, in an attempt to woo swaying voters? Cynical perhaps, but one thing’s for certain: showing support for a section of society that would normally vote for your opponent can’t have done his election campaign any harm.

Both these events got me thinking of other adverts that kicked up a political storm. So I had a bit of a dig in the archives and found a couple more…

Richard Gere drives his Fiat to Tibet – angers the Chinese

Back in 2008, Fiat ran a TV commercial for its new Lancia Delta model, starring actor and Free Tibet campaigner Richard Gere. The ad showed Gere driving the car through a Tibetan village where he makes a hand print in the snow with a young Tibetan monk. The camera then cuts to the slogan: “The power to be different.”

The TV ad outraged the Chinese, who said it promoted Tibetan independence, even calling it a rallying cry for political change. In response, Fiat issued an immediate statement distancing themselves from “Mr Gere’s social and political views”.

Now, on the face of it, this may sound like corporate suicide, but a closer look suggests it could have been a masterstroke. The Free Tibet movement is popular in Europe and America, so both the TV ad and the ensuing controversy got plenty of airtime. Sales of the Lancia went up and all Fiat had to do was make a formal apology to the Chinese government – they didn’t even stop running the ad!

Chrysler bowl over America…but not the Republicans

The Super Bowl is regarded as one of the greatest sports events in the world, with over 100 million viewers tuning in. Yet despite all the pre-game build up and talk of who will win, the main thing advertisers look forward to are the half-time TV ad breaks. It’s where agencies get to show off some of the most creative, fun and downright brilliant adverts that will be shown all year.

In 2012, the Super Bowl ad break was dominated by one ad in particular – but not just because of how good it was. The ad, for Chrysler, starred Clint Eastwood and seemingly promoted the revival of Chrysler and other Detroit car manufacturers as a model for a new American resurgence.

“People are out of work and they’re hurting,” growls Clint as the ad begins. “And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.”

It’s certainly stirring stuff. But for Republicans, it’s ill-feeling not inspiration that’s been stirred. They reckon the whole thing is effectively a big slice of propaganda for Barack Obama, as he seeks to win a second term as president.

Chrysler was in deep trouble before the Obama administration bailed it out with $12.5 billion of U.S. taxpayers money. Now, it’s come back from the brink, hiring workers and posting strong profits. It has repaid all but $1.8 billion of its debt, and in January 2012 was shifting its cars at faster than it had in four years.

So when you have Clint standing there saying things like, “we almost lost everything, but we all pulled together” it seems as if he’s endorsing the bailout strategy. And when the ad closes with the line, “it’s half-time in America and our second half’s about to begin,” there’s a suggestion, so the Republicans reckon, that he’s endorsing a second term for Obama.

Clint himself denies it. Ironically in fact he was quite a vocal opponent of corporate bailouts, saying in 2011, “If a CEO can’t figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn’t be the CEO.” And likewise, Chrysler has distanced itself from the argument, stating it has it has “zero political content” and simply “says something…about the resilience of America.”

Whoever you believe, one thing you can’t deny. When you get people talking about your TV ad, you’re getting an important foothold into the public psyche. And when it comes to promoting your product, that’s half the battle won.