When designing an advertisement campaign how should one balance dignity and respect for offensiveness?

Nobody remembers the latest ad for McDonald's or Foldger's but I can tell you all about the "black face Dunkin Donuts" ad or the "Pearl Izumi run until your dog collapses" ad.

As a designer, who will undoubtedly take the blame for it - for example the McDonald's You're Not Alone ad.

When is it okay? How do future employers view this? On the one hand it is in a sense marketing genius --- no publicity is bad publicity. On the other hand it is often highly offensive or at the very least seen as tasteless. So as a designer when is it okay, what is the calculation? Particularly, if you're the one making the decision (Answering when the client wants it, is not a complete answer).

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    People get offended at all sorts of stuff... These ads are tasteless and/or stupid. Offensive? not in my book. What about Benetton? Offensive too? top10buzz.com/…
    – benteh
    Mar 31 '14 at 14:37
  • Tasteless or tactless is fine too, I'll edit the question to include those words. You're welcome to post your thoughts as an answer.
    – Ryan
    Mar 31 '14 at 14:47
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    Great question, Ryan, and one that's highly relevant in today's marketing climate. Mar 31 '14 at 18:21
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    I'm a firm believer that all comedy is offensive (or at least 95% of comedy). It's just a matter of which group of people you are "okay" with offending. And offending others doesn't have to be malicious. We should all be able to laugh at ourselves to some degree.
    – Scott
    Apr 1 '14 at 7:24
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    The point of advertising is to grow your customer base. If your design is so tasteless that it causes more customers to leave than the new customers it attracts, then it is clearly too tasteless (or perhaps not tasteless enough). If it doesn't, it isn't. So obviously, don't make a stupid joke that you and a few other people will like, but most people who are your client's customers or potential customers will hate.
    – Superbest
    Apr 2 '14 at 5:02

De gustibus non est disputandum applies. What is tasteless, like what is humorous (or not), varies with culture, fashion, sensitivities and the prevailing political climate. It is also a personal matter, so my answer is personal.

Like anyone, I have my own views on what is acceptable. This isn't a matter of being snobbish; it's that I want to hang onto my enthusiasm. In marketing, as in anything, working hard to produce stuff that is actively harmful (and spreading upset is harmful) is a fast route to burnout. On the other hand, I won't hold back on an effective and worthwhile message just because someone, somewhere might get hurt feelings.

As Emilie says, it's almost a certainty that someone will be offended by anything one puts out. (The mayor of a city I lived in used to talk about a "group" he called C.A.V.E. -- Citizens Against Virtually Everything -- who could be guaranteed to object to any project, regardless of how it would improve things.) But sometimes an ad has to be provocative to get a point across.

As to the calculation, it starts with enough research or knowledge to understand who might take offense, and why. That's balanced against the importance and the validity of the message. If there's a good chance that someone's going to be in a snit, is there a better way to design the message that will get the point across just as effectively? Am I just being lazy in going with the first idea that came along, whether mine or the client's?

If the answer to both of these is "No," I tend to apply the "Give me a break" test: Is this negative reaction actually sensible? The Dunkin' Donuts ad in Thailand is a great example: some people on the other side of the world, in a completely different culture, raised an objection to a highly successful (and perfectly tasteful, from a Thai point of view) ad. That's a forehead-smacking moment, right there. The inane reaction from some quarters to Coca-Cola's Super Bowl 2014 diversity ad is another.

I've my own experiences along this line: in one case, the key image in a billboard design, which perfectly communicated the intended message when we surveyed it, was rejected by a client's Board (a non-profit in the Black community) because "the Black kid is too light-skinned." The client's marketing director and I both reacted with "Give me a break!"

As for future employers, if the HR people are self-appointed guardians of Political Correctness or they have other hot-issue buttons, you may find you stomped on them. In the end, though, it is yourself that you have to live with. Trying to please all the people, all the time winds up in a bland, inconsequential place of no value to anyone.

Ultimately, it comes down to your own judgment and integrity. You can't expect to get it right 100% of the time, but you can certainly try.

  • ..."rejected by a client's Board (a non-profit in the Black community) because "the Black kid is too light-skinned." Oh the irony! I was appaled to see in India or Indonesia how they actually make everyone's skin much lighter than in reality so reading your story made me chuckle :-)
    – curious
    Mar 31 '14 at 23:43
  • See, there's an interesting point. In India, a very large segment of the (mostly upper-class) population are actually relatively fair-skinned. Here in the US, most of the ads in, say, Ebony magazine show light-skinned people -- a pragmatic choice: that's what sells. It's a dodgy area, fraught with shifting political and cultural considerations. The acceptable roles and appearance of women in advertisements have changed radically in the last 50 years, for example, and they're still changing. Apr 1 '14 at 18:37
  • I kept the matchmaker section of the newspaper when I was there in 2013. A lot of people put fair skinned as a 1st criteria so I'm not surprised by what you affirm. I just googled Ebony magazine and I'm surprised that it's done in the US too.
    – curious
    Apr 2 '14 at 2:15

I second Emilie in saying that everything will offend someone somewhere. Personally, I am pretty sick of people finding offence left right and centre. Some people are looking for things that will get their knickers in a twist, and as Alan so elegantly points out: pleasing everyone ends up in the bland, the invisible and - at best - mediocre work. And therefore not efficient communication or marketing.

Cultural preferences imposed from other countries and other cultures ideas of PC is incredibly annoying. That is offensive. I will not have USA, Italy, Uganda or Fiji telling me how not to make ads for Scandinavia.

You could say that this is really about a communication language, and do not forget that some level of offence can be very effective marketing. You can annoy some people, stereotype them; and this will strengthen the brand among those who sees themselves the opposite. You can be upset, offended or intrigued by the series of United Colors of Benetton, they will rarely leave you indifferent. Funnily enough, regarding United Colors, their clothes are pretty non-descript (though colourful), but the ads often makes people go rabid. I think you can annoy people and still sell them things: if you first annoy them, and then make them think.

I once saw an ad, with four gray, grave, boring, suited, miserable guys with the caption "the most colourful thing (accountants) Johnson, Hansen, Jensen and Nielsen did last year, was to switch to eco-friendly printing paper". I think accountants might find it funny too

Good ads makes you see things a little differently, they surprise you a little: enough to have your attention for a little bit. You cannot do this by pleasing everyone. Sometimes you have to be bold, be brave, and just go for it. Political correctness is too often stupid.

  • Well said, sir! Coincidentally, I blogged recently about the role of humor in marketing. I'll have to track down that accountant ad and add it to the post. What was the company, do you recall? Mar 31 '14 at 21:36
  • @AlanGilbertson Madam, actually.. Not sure if the ad is available... it was in a paper, years ago. And in Norway... Link to your blogpost?
    – benteh
    Mar 31 '14 at 21:54
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    LOL! Well, see, my father was Bob, two of my uncles were Bob, and I have a cousin Bob, all certified as male (I have the certificates). When they were small, they would have been Boblets. :) Mar 31 '14 at 22:42
  • :) it is a nickname, one of many, and it does have a root in the piglet-boblet idea, additionally, "boblet" in my language means "bubbly". Considering going back to my other nom de guerre. Wildly OT.
    – benteh
    Mar 31 '14 at 22:49
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    @Emilie What often happens is that you have a general campaign message and brand guidelines, and then local offices can create and polish individual ads to fit the local market. "I'm lovin' it" in the USA might be translated to "Perfect harmony" in Tokyo, for random example. So the USA should not be telling Scandinavia how to make the ad, but rather what the eventual message of the ad should be, and then Scandinavia needs to execute it so it's visually branded correctly. Apr 1 '14 at 0:00

This is really Your Mileage May Vary, or in this case Your Audience's Mileage May Vary.

What one audience thinks is tasteless is another audience's boring. The multi-racial family in the Cheerios ad, for example: in some corners of the U.S. it's shocking to the point of boycotting the cereal, in some areas the reaction is "Finally!", in some it's "huh? there's an issue?" and in still others viewers say "Wait, is the problem that the dad undermined the mom by telling the daughter she could have a dog without clearing it with the mom first?"

If you're worried about future employment, then you have to calculate your entire career trajectory every time you take on a client. Or you have to decide if you have enough projects at Offense Level 4 that you can afford to remove the one at Offense Level 7 from your portfolio.

There are very few DEFCON 1 projects which nearly everyone will find offensive. X-rated ads are probably up there. Tobacco in the U.S. is high on the list but not necessarily a career killer. Below that, well, know your audience.

  • Building on Lauren's answer, if you want a job and you know what the employer's style is, just adapt your portfolio in order to get the job.
    – curious
    Apr 1 '14 at 2:32

Great answers here, I just wanted to mention something that hasn't been raised yet (except in the question), and it's the matter of dignity.

Humor, even if slightly offensive for a group or the other, is one thing. I love humor. Playing on people's weaknesses for the sake of profit is entirely different. I don't mind the 'colorful' Benetton ads, but I do not feel comfortable for example with the Bosnian soldier ad. We need to talk about war, yes. We need to talk about war so we can sell t-shirts, well, don't count me in. Now if it's UNICEF using pictures of poor little children to cause a reaction that's a different story. Is it ethical? Maybe they could find an alternative way of promoting what they do and get donations. But is the goal ethical? Yes, it is.

Witty marketing ideas (products can in fact provoke feelings) is different from ruthless manipulation of emotions.

But I guess for me it comes down to what are you trying to sell. I would never work for Monsanto, and I would never think of one of their ads as art, no matter how genius it is. I can't divorce what a company does/sells from the company itself. McDonalds stating their food is healthy is plain harmful. Can you oversee the sexist and borderline racist stereotyping of Axe's campaign Make love not war? No matter how nicely filmed it is, or how well executed the idea was, I can't.


It's always about the brand.

What does the brand stand for in it's audience's mind? Is it offensive, irreverent, tasteless? Then you have to live up to that. Anything less wouldn't be true to their intended message. If you aren't comfortable with that type of material, you shouldn't be working with a brand that stands for it in the first place.

Another commenter mentioned McDonald's "healthy" messaging. It's a lie, but so is everything else about McD's. Their audience doesn't care that their products are only vaguely related to food. They like the taste of additives and being told that it's good for them. Their audience is notoriously disinterested in genuineness.

Brands are people too. Sorta.

Every brand should be first understood as a character, a personality, something an audience can personify in their minds. Once you have an accurate persona of the brand in your mind, then you'll know where to go with just about any message.

The tricky part is when a brand wants to transform it's persona. Then things get very murky and you'll be leaning on either a lot of market research or (in the most stressful circumstances) intuition. It's awefully fun, though :)


I don't think it is marketing genius as you could get as much visibility with a great ad that is not tasteless.

As for the calculation, I don't think there is a way to do the calculation by yourself, especially if you're not the target audience. Different target audience have different flexibility for humor, you likely won't have the same tolerance for certain things if you're a geek vs. if you are investing in a diamonds or something. That's where I would push for a focus group. If you're designing for that kind of client, you should have the budget to hold one anyways.

Everyone gets offended by everything these days. If your target audience thinks you ad is good, I would tend to say you're on the right track.

As for future employers, it depends on the fit. Some look for that kind of "in your face" portfolio and others are more conservative.


Purely from a graphic designer's POV, it's a decision that each designer has to make on their own based on the particulars of the given situation.

In general, being offensive isn't a typical marketing strategy, though it does get used. You as a designer have to decide if you want to work on projects that are purposefully attempting to be offensive.

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