When rudeness sells
THE Israeli government recently raised an interesting question for advertisers: whom can you safely insult?
"American Jews" is the wrong answer.
An ad campaign urging Jews to return to Israel showed a boy calling his father "daddy" instead of "abba".
Diaspora Jews were outraged at the implication that they are not properly Jewish.
Companies don't usually make such elementary errors.
The list of people or groups an advertiser can be rude about is very short, reckons Bob Jeffrey, the boss of JWT, a big ad agency.
He recalls adverts from the 1960s such as "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's", which depicted people of various ethnicities munching on a Brooklyn baker's rye bread sandwich.
Such slogans would not be kosher today.
But "if you say you're not going to annoy anyone, you might as well give up," adds Mr Jeffrey.
Insulting dictators ought to be safe,
so long as you do not operate in the same country.
Nando's, a South African restaurant chain, forgot that with an ad showing a Robert Mugabe lookalike glumly alone at dinner (after many of his fellow despots had been deposed).
He reminisces about happy days shooting water pistols with Muammar Qaddafi, playing in the sand with Saddam Hussein and riding a tank, "Titanic"-style, with Idi Amin.
The ad was broadcast in South Africa, where Nando's middle-class target audience found it hilarious.
But Nando's also has restaurants in Zimbabwe. Threats ensued. Fearing violence against its staff there, the ad was pulled.
Outside America, companies can probably get away with insulting George Bush junior.
In Malaysia, his face has been used to sell cars, contrasting the "not smart" president with Smart cars.
However, a Toyota ad featuring Brad Pitt was banned there for being an "insult to Asians" by promoting a Western ideal of male beauty. Indeed, the existence of Mr Pitt is irritating to men everywhere.
In Britain, the government takes a dim view of television ads that mock living people.
In 2002 an ad was banned for depicting David Beckham, a footballer not known for his academic accomplishments, asking his wife how to spell "DVD".
The advertiser's protest—that it was for a satirical TV show with much ruder lines—did not succeed.
It is often profitable to stir controversy. An ad that upsets people and thereby generates headlines is an excellent source of free publicity.
But if it alienates potential customers, it has gone too far.
Benetton, a fashion brand, reels in young shoppers by annoying their parents, for example with a recent ad showing the pope kissing Ahmed al-Tayeb, an Egyptian imam.
An edgy image helps sell clothes, but it works less well with cars,
as Toyota found with an ad in Australia that mocked both Range Rover and the British queen: "Don't worry, Your Majesty. You're not the only British export that's had its day." Monarchists howled. Toyota apologised.