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A guest post by Jonathan Lewis of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising.

Political correctness in advertising is like a blow horn at the orchestra---stifling, out of place and a creativity killer. For all of the advertising industry’s grand soapboxing about big ideas and creative excellence, I’m disheartened to see a growing divide between our talk and our walk.

Let me be clear: A healthy respect for all people and their differences is vital in advertising. And I’m certainly not advocating being offensive. In fact, I would encourage all advertisers to take a serious look at their impact on culture and the moral responsibility that influence carries.

But unreasonable fear caused by rampant political correctness is not the path to marketing success.

Only by remembering our purpose, understanding the roots of our politically correct culture, and analyzing its impact on advertising will we be able to clearly identify its place in (or needed exit from) our industry.

Why Are We Here Again?

The first and primary goal of any agency should be to make its clients successful. If anything, including oversensitivity, obscures that principal objective, then your agency is heading down a dangerous and self-defeating road.

It seems many of us have lost sight of our purpose. Drowning in a sea of self-censorship, we forget that we’re here to improve our clients’ bottom line.

In 2004, after seeing years of plateauing sales, Skittles took a chance on zany and unafraid marketing. Much of the company’s subsequent success can be attributed to TBWA’s focused and controversial advertising for the candy maker. With the recent online campaign featuring a cat and a man licking the viewer’s finger and a video showing a man’s head exploding, Skittles has unabashedly embraced advertising that could easily invite criticism.

Companies like Skittles are frequently put through the fire for edgy advertising, but what their critics fail to realize is that their goal isn’t to offend people. Rather, they are devoted to understanding their target. In today’s noisy world, Skittles’s young target is flooded with thousands of marketing messages a day. Tactfully standing out from the crowd has become increasingly difficult, and Skittles’s advertising has honed in on this fact. Anything less would bring meager results.

The Road to Hell is Paved …

According to Merriam-Webster, political correctness is “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities … should be eliminated.” Richard Bernstein, writing in the New York Times, explains that “… [political correctness], which has roots in 1960s radicalism, is the view that Western society has for centuries been dominated by what is often called ‘the white male power structure' ... ”

This may explain why it has become culturally acceptable in advertising to portray white males in a negative light, with leaders in advertising like Jeff Goodby admitting “that if a storyline makes fun of a character, an agency will typically be wary of casting a minority actor in the role for fear of being disrespectful.”

The Super Bowl has become an annual opportunity for publicity-seeking special interest groups to be offended by anything that moves. Groupon was recently the center of a politically correct firestorm for its Super Bowl commercials contrasting topics like endangered whales and deforestation with Groupon’s call to “save the money” through its services. Even though Groupon had secured the endorsement of organizations like Greenpeace and The Tibet Fund beforehand---and had even created a website encouraging visitors to donate to the causes---Advertising Age reported that Groupon pulled the ads more to “save face than to stop defecting customers.”

While many who promote political correctness begin the journey with good intentions, we all know where that road eventually leads. The truth is that political correctness is anchored in limiting language which limits ideas and leads to weak euphemisms, bland communication and, inevitably, to George Orwell’s infamous newspeak. This, interestingly, is the exact prescription for ineffective advertising.

A Culture of Fear

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Spoken during the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words strike at the heart of a major issue facing our culture and industry today. The dirty secret no one wants to talk about is that not only is the advertising industry limping through the current recession and parrying increased government regulation and public criticism, our industry is facing an onslaught of politically correct censorship that could forever cripple our ability to effectively and creatively communicate with our clients’ customers.

You’ll never be able to please everyone. Someone will always find something offensive about your ad. But that’s okay. Get some guts. Paralyzing fear has never led to innovation or profit.

I’m not advocating being offensive for offensiveness’s sake. I’m not even advocating being offensive. But if we continue down this path of politically correct craziness, our fear will be our industry’s undoing.

Jonathan Lewis is an account executive at McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising.

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