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April 30, 2001 Issue Full Text
Revolt of the spud-lovers

The furor over an 'insensitive' margarine commercial reveals that it's not easy to be an adman

by Colby Cosh

"SPUD" was just a commercial, but it might have been one of the best things on Canadian TV this past year. A thirty-second advert for Imperial margarine, "Spud" was first seen on March 5 and immediately caught the attention of consumers with its sly use of montage and music. As the spot begins, we see an ordinary potato perched on top of a microwave, ready for cooking. Air Supply's sappy '80s megahit "All Out of Love" plays in the background as the camera cuts to an empty bowl of Imperial. Suddenly, in one of those "Aha!" moments that makes great advertising, the viewer realizes that the faceless, immobile potato is heartbroken that there is no more margarine. And then, even more suddenly, the potato twitches and leaps off the microwave, impaling itself on the upturned tines of a barbecue fork.

Don't laugh, though: potato suicide is apparently no joke. Or, at least, that is what 200 angry correspondents told Imperial manufacturer Unilever Canada Foods. Hit with a blizzard of angry e-mails concerning the ad, Unilever pulled the ad from the airwaves in late March. "We got a lot of positive comments from people who thought the ad was brilliant," says Mark Welling, vice-president of brand development for Unilever's food division. "The negative ones tended to come from people who had some family connection to suicide, or, in some cases, social workers.

"It highlights the fact that people tend to hold ads to a higher standard than actual television programming; you'll see worse things than 'Spud' in any Road Runner cartoon," argues Mr. Welling. "Anything you can do in advertising is going to offend someone unless you make it completely milquetoast, but the problem is especially acute with a product like margarine, one that you find in every household. In something like a beer commercial, you can practically get away with murder. In this situation, it's clearly not in our interest to alienate consumers."

"Spud" is scarcely the first victim of the harangues of sensitive viewers. Some may remember a brilliant Mazda minivan ad which had a dog barking in the back seat, with English subtitles for his "dialogue": the dog's plea for the driver to "Hit that cat!" had to be changed to "Watch that cat!" after the company received complaints. Labatt ads showing beer-drinking slackers careening down a hill in shopping carts lasted mere days in the face of the self-appointed safety police. Whitehall-Robins had to kill a commercial in which they "apologized" for their cold remedy Dimetapp, which enabled bank robbers to pull a heist in perfect respiratory health. The list could be extended to dozens of ads that had to be neutered or removed, even though they were not particularly violent or sexual.

A frustrated Mr. Welling points out that the Internet has made it much easier to barrage sponsors with complaints. "If we had run that same ad before people had e-mail, it would have required them to write a letter and put a stamp on it," he says. "The norms we have for measuring consumer responses have to change, and we're still establishing new ones."

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