By Chris Moore
This year's controversial Super Bowl broadcast set off a chain of events in the advertising and programming worlds. Eveer since Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction," the debate about what constitutes "decency" and where to draw the line has been something of a nation preoccupation with lawmakers, commentators, and cultural arbiters, surpassed only by the attention given to events in Iraq, the war on terror, and the state of the national economy. Believe it or not, the decency debate may open a window of opportunity for small businesses.
When Americans gathered to watch the Super Bowl, Madison Avenue's greatest and most-watched showcase, many of this year's spots depended on sophomoric humor -- flatulent horses, crotch-biting dogs, and womanizing monkeys. Even those themes were overshadowed, however, by a halftime show that culminated with that notorious glimpse of Jackson's bared breast.
Both the ads and the eye-popping climax of Jackson's routine with Justin Timberlake immediately come under heavy scrutiny, inspiring a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) probe and sparking a far-ranging reaction. When the subsequent Grammy Awards went to air, they did so with a five-second delay so that any crass or obscene behavior by presenters or recipients could be bleeped out. The Academy Awards did the same, with organizers insisting guidelines spelling out what constitutes acceptable commercials be strictly followed. Meanwhile, Clear Channel's radio stations suspended Howard Stern's morning show due to racial slurs and offensive sexual references -- the same shock-jock schtick, in other words, that Stern has been serving up for years.
What does all this mean for small business? Well, as the debate continues about government's role in policing indecency and obscenity, small business marketers are caught in the middle, whether they realize it or not. Obviously, small advertisers have smaller budgets, so keeping their ads off the network programming hasn't been an issue for most because they weren't buying that broadcast time in the first place. However, even though entrepreneurs weren't responsible for the sort of risque Super Bowl spots that raised the FCC's ire, their ads are coming under just as much scrutiny. And that renewed focus on all ads -- those for small and large businesses alike -- raises the stakes.
If a small-business ad gets attention, it's doing its job -- and as all business owners know, modest budgets make it essential that each budgeted dollar buys the maximum impact. One temptation is to seek that impact by pushing the envelope of taste. Yes, that approach can turn heads. But to the extent an ad offends, it may work against the ultimate goal, which is winning customers and making a product a success in the marketplace. The other temptation -- eschewing questionable content and erring on the side of the bland and unremarkable -- is also a potential trap.
So, it's damned if you, damned if you don't -- right?
Not at all. Fact is, advertising can be fresh, compelling, creative, and accomplishing its business objectives without being offensive. The best advertising, like a beautiful painting or well-crafted movie, stirs, moves, and is both thought-provoking and uplifting. And it's not necessary to be humorous for the sake of being funny. A good ad isn't a joke with a product at the end -- sort of like Bud Light's farting horse, if you'll pardon the imagery. Few small businesses can be effective this way.
Advertisements need to be provocative and remarkable by connecting the target to the product in a thoughtful manner. That's why good small-business advertising is so valuable and hard to achieve.
As the broader debate rages, small businesses may be tempted to crawl into a creative shell, playing it so safe their ads are soporific. To take that approach would be a monumental mistake. Rather, the smart ones will step away from the pack, try harder to tap the vein of genuine creativity that connects appropriate emotions to brand and product, and present the result in a relevant, compelling way.
If small advertisers can fulfill that mission, they will separate their work from the great body of advertising that is either unnoticeable or inane. Bathroom humor is easy. True creativity is rare, and all the more worthwhile striving for -- especially in light of the potential results.