Where It's At

Foul Play

Lathering up with a particular brand of shampoo has a woman in one ad so enthralled, we feel like voyeurs watching her. Bus ads promoting one NBC sitcom boldly proclaim "Shoot Happens." And when New Jersey-based off-price retailer Daffy's suggests a jacket to go with your expensive dress shirt, a straitjacket flashes on the screen.

Miss Manners, where have you gone? In the continuous quest to grab consumers' attention, more and more advertisers are pushing the taste envelope. Four letter words (or their stand-ins), double-entendres and sick jokes--from the mild to the raw--have become fair game in the once straight-laced world of marketing.

"So much advertising out there is bland," argues Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, the award-winning New York City agency that created the Daffy's spot. "There's so much eyewash, so much boredom [playing to a nation of avowed channel-changers]. You've got to break through all that."

Meanwhile, the bar has been lowered on public discourse. "It's a society-wide trend,' says Jean Folkerts, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC. "Increasing levels of profanity are becoming normal in conversation; you see it in adolescents' language, sexual mores, even TV situation comedies."

But do consumers buy it? According to Verdi, yes--provided the message has a real edge and not just gratuitous shock. "The hardest work is [to make ads that are] smart and have a strong hit,' Verdi says. "You have to [appeal to] people's brains--surprise them. Otherwise, they don't remember you."

And if you offend people? "It's an indication to us that people are paying attention," Verdi says.

Folkerts, on the other hand, still holds some hope for standards. "At some point, you risk alienating more people than you're attracting," she warns. The trick, of course, is knowing where to draw the ever-shifting line.

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This article was originally published in the January 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Where It's At.

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