Knowing when you will do something offensive, and whom will cry offense, is a tricky business, akin to guessing jellybeans in a jar or predicting the path of a major snowstorm.
Puppies, for instance, can offend, particularly when they are cute, and you're using them in marketing. That's the takeaway from the unfortunate reversal by GoDaddy to remove a proposed Super Bowl ad that animal-rights groups found offensive.
In the ad, an adorable golden retriever puppy named Buddy gets thrown out of the bed of a pickup truck and navigates a series of events to finally make it home to the arms of his waiting owner. She, in turn, is elated -- because she already found a buyer for him on her website (which, naturally, she created through GoDaddy).
It is a great spot, as ads go. It plays on emotion and overplayed themes (Anheuser-Busch tends to lose puppies all the time), and then flips the script to give the audience something entirely unexpected. It is funny. It is parody. And it is effective.
But GoDaddy was put through the mill over it because animal-rights groups found it an offensive promotion of puppy mills and backyard breeders. So it took down the ad and made its appropriate mea culpas. The company that first caught our attention by having women in bikinis soap up cars with their ample breasts doesn't want to be in the position where it might offend.
Some are suggesting it was brilliant marketing to pull the ad. We are, after all, talking about GoDaddy now and that's marketing gold. But a win for the dog set is a loss for free expression. You will, if you live your life correctly, offend someone at some point for some thing, often without even knowing it. (The companion sin for nearly every offense is typically the accusation that you are ignorant in some way of some social norm.) The more intelligent and successful you are, the higher the risk. Aristotle said it best: "To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing." Fear of offense, or, worse, acquiescing to demands as a result, tends to chill honest debate about subjects. There could have been a teaching moment here, where animal-rights activists used the ad to talk about conditions at puppy mills. Instead, GoDaddy removed the ad, and left the puppy marketing to Budweiser -- to sell beer.
Some images, after all, are too offensive to be contemplated.
Now let's set some kittens on fire.
Amid all the focus on puppies in pickups, folks can't get enough of blowing up kittens with grenades. Really. A Kickstarter campaign for a card game called Exploding Kittens has itself blown up, raising north of $4 million with a staggering 108,000 backers. The game, illustrated by noted web cartoonist Matthew Inman, has attracted more backers than other campaigns to date. Perhaps it's the name, or the great picture of a kitten holding a grenade, that makes our hearts and wallets purr, but we sure do love us some exploding kittens.
Related: No, McDonald's Won't 'Ruin' Cuba
There are not calls to end the campaign, with sermonizing over how it promotes violence against felines. Nor do we have to endure documentaries about the back-alley sex trade that makes so many of these streetcrawlers perpetually gravid. Why? Well, perhaps Americans love puppies more than kittens, and, for reasons that escape me, we let this kind of discrimination go unchecked.
But, there is likely something else at work here. No one would ever advocate blowing up kittens. It is cruel, sick and inhuman. We wouldn't even allow cats to eat Mexican food and stand near an open flame.
Something so in-your-face as Exploding Kittens must be parody, an entertaining joke meant to raise awareness for a product. Just like GoDaddy's ad.
This is the crux with the problem for marketers and advocates of free expression alike nowadays. You cannot condemn a company for insensistivity to puppies and not condemn one for insensitivity to kittens. Nor can you excuse parody on the one side and not on the other.
And that's my worry. Try to not offend someone and you are likely to produce bland, meaningless content. What's more, you'll also likely offend someone anyway. There may, after all, be people who think a love affair between a horse and a dog is just, well, bestial. Don't want to anger those folks.
In the end, no dogs or cats were harmed in the making of these commercials, or in the writing of this column. But I hope someone's sensibilities were. That's the only way to get people to really think nowadays. That's a doggone shame.