Like many bloggers and pundits, Bob Hoffman of The Ad Contrarian panned The Richards Group’s “Hail to the V” campaign for Summer’s Eve. Upon later learning that Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ “Got PMS?” milk campaign for the California Milk Processor Board was also ripped by critics and ultimately yanked, Hoffman was inspired to publish another post titled, “I Am Offended.” Hoffman’s perspective discussed advertisers’ right to free speech, and he wondered if public pressure to pull campaigns amounted to censorship. In Hoffman’s words, “Is it wise to apply pressure to effectively silence offensive ideas?”
Of course, the post ignited a comments thread including the typical remarks like, “It’s always a source of bewilderment to me just how far those who are so easily offended will go out of their way merely to find something that will offend them,” “Political correctness is nothing but fascism in new clothes,” and the ever-popular hack’s gripe, “We’re heading for a road of bland, thought-free advertising purely to safeguard against people (who more than likely are not your target audience) being offended.” MultiCultClassics left initial comments in response to the clichéd and contrived whiners, yet felt compelled to further examine Hoffman’s true viewpoint. Read the full post and preceding post to draw your own conclusions. MultiCultClassics is focusing on the following excerpts:
I am afraid that we are in a slow but inexorable slide toward the erosion of free speech. To a significant degree, this erosion is due to the erroneous belief that people have a right to be free of offense.
In fact, our constitution guarantees exactly the opposite. It guarantees us the right to offend whomever the hell we want whenever the hell we want to. That’s what free speech means.
Our courts have held that as a general principle commercial speech enjoys similar protections as individual speech. This means that businesses and advertisers have the same right to offend that individuals do.
I happen to hold very liberal views about individual liberties, including free speech. But there is a branch of “liberalism” these days that has become very intolerant. These people are humorless scolds who are very easily offended and demand instant redress for their injured sensitivities.
There is also a branch of conservatism that thinks we need to be protected from “dangerous” ideas. Well, I appreciate your concern, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to draw my own conclusions.
The tricky part is this. Government is prohibited from censoring what we can say. But well-meaning citizens, believing they are protecting society from dangerous, offensive, or prejudicial ideas, have substantial power to censor by applying economic pressure.
In the internet age, it has become much easier to band together to exert pressure for the purpose of silencing ideas we don’t like. And we have every right to do so. But before we exercise this right we need to think seriously about the implications.
I don’t believe our sensitivities are so profound that they trump someone else’s right to offend us. I don’t believe we want to allow the limits of commercial discourse to be determined by the loudest bullies on the web.
Do ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes cause offense? Absolutely.
Should we act to silence them? Absolutely not.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Hoffman usually exhibits above-average intelligence, and his blog is among the finer reads out there, but he really comes off as an Old White Guy in this scenario.
Wikipedia states, “Freedom of speech in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and by many state constitutions and state and federal laws, with the exception of obscenity, defamation, incitement to riot, and fighting words, as well as harassment, privileged communications, trade secrets, classified material, copyright, patents, military conduct, commercial speech such as advertising, and time, place and manner restrictions.” There are other provisions listed at Wikipedia as well. So it’s a bit of a stretch for Hoffman to proclaim the U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to offend whomever the hell they want whenever the hell they want to.
Hoffman is a tad delusional to write, “Our courts have held that as a general principle commercial speech enjoys similar protections as individual speech. This means that businesses and advertisers have the same right to offend that individuals do.” Um, not exactly. Advertising has been regulated seemingly forever by sources such as the FCC, FDA and—wait for it—TV network censors. Hell, nearly every form of media features some type of official ad scrutiny on national, local and in-house levels. And do you want to know a main reason why, Mr. Hoffman? Because our industry has consistently demonstrated that its practitioners cannot be trusted. We’re hucksters. Offensive too.
Plus, advertisers bleep themselves. Anyone with any experience in the business knows that clients have their own internal watchdogs with wildly inconsistent and personal standards. A common killer of campaigns uttered by clients and adpeople alike is, “This will never get past the guys in legal.” And to be clear, advertisers’ “legal departments” make calls that go beyond legal issues, reaching as far as moral territory.
If advertising can be “censored” by the government, media and advertisers, why can’t the public nix messages too?
Hoffman’s attacks on “liberals” and “conservatives” sound familiar—and a little paranoid. Could it be that the entire rant is really rooted in a fear of advancement? Consider the following ads:
Does anyone not think these messages are offensive? Does anyone not think these messages should be prohibited from running today?
Society has moved forward, abandoning these types of messages, because of pressures exerted by the government, media, advertisers and the public. Sure, there were probably folks arguing about “political correctness” and “freedom of speech” when the eliminations took place, just as there were jeers for Henry Ford by yahoos who didn’t want to give up their horses. Hey, change for the better can be scary.
Women’s Rights, Civil Rights and Gay Rights began when individuals and groups proceeded to challenge what others were saying. The U.S. of A launched with protests too. In a similar spirit, if advertisers insult someone—deliberately or not—the offended have the right to tell them to stop. Why, it might be an ethical and moral obligation. Freedom of speech is a two-way street. Go ahead and shit on the public, Madison Avenue. But please do not cry when turds are tossed back in your direction.
Hoffman’s thoughts on the Internet Age are wacky. Yes, the World Wide Web has enabled folks to organize grievances in new ways. On the flip side, it has fueled nutcases and advertisers to push offensiveness to unprecedented heights. Sorry, the offenders still outnumber the offended.
“I don’t believe our sensitivities are so profound that they trump someone else’s right to offend us. I don’t believe we want to allow the limits of commercial discourse to be determined by the loudest bullies on the web,” wrote Hoffman. Gee, cultural cluelessness makes smart people type stupid statements. Additionally, labeling the offended as “bullies” could be a new standard of arrogance for the White privileged among us.
Hoffman should not be “afraid that we are in a slow but inexorable slide toward the erosion of free speech.” It’s actually an explosion of free speech, as the public exercises the right to rebut offenders. God Bless America!
We’ve all heard the belief—often delivered by talentless amateurs and direct marketers—that advertising is not art. For the record, MultiCultClassics does not subscribe to the contention. However, the overwhelming majority of adpeople are not fine artists or political revolutionaries. And Mad Men should not be permitted to justify ignorance by embracing freedom of speech. We must operate under restrictions, we must act with responsibility and we must view the public with respect.
It’s not the road to hell. It’s the road to progress.