Thoughts On Advertising: What To Do When Your Subject’s Taboo

| By Randy Jones

If you make a product that solves a problem, you need to advertise to reach the people who have that problem and make them aware of your solution. But what if it’s a problem that people don’t like to talk – or hear – about? This has always been an issue for companies that make such products. A century ago, when advertising was done in newspapers and magazines, mixed among the ads for new shoes and automobiles would be discreet ads for products that cured embarrassing medical problems, all very serious and discreet.

Eventually, TV became the primary advertising medium, and what could be said and shown was very restricted. Families often watched TV together, after all, and commercials for products that dealt with very private subjects were simply not appropriate. Yes, you might see a commercial that talked about having bad breath or dandruff, but it rarely went beyond that.

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Over the years, though, as cable TV became more prevalent and other forms of entertainment loosened up (R-rated movies, adult magazines), the shows and ads on TV pushed the limits of acceptability farther and farther. Commercials for hemorrhoid cures, women’s hygiene products and other very personal things became more and more common, again always presented seriously and sensitively. Then, in 1998, everything changed because of one product: Viagra. Before Viagra was advertised on TV, no one had ever heard the term “erectile dysfunction.” Now it’s so ingrained in society that people just say “E-D” and everyone gets it.

Once Viagra and similar products became staples of TV advertising, there was seemingly no topic that couldn’t be approached. But once you can advertise anything, the question then becomes, how do you advertise it? The answer, for most of today’s “taboo products,” is with humor. In some cases, it’s quite literally “toilet humor,” as with Airwick’s V. I. Poo, a spray to use before you go to the bathroom. If you haven’t seen this commercial (and believe me, it runs on TV quite often), here it is:

Deodorants have been advertised for decades on TV, but it’s only recently that their ads have dealt with the more unpleasant aspects of perspiring, like pit stains. This recent ad from Secret Deodorant uses humor to deal with that very thing, again quite directly.

And lest you think only females have their embarrassing problems highlighted on TV, here’s an ad that deals with the male side of the ledger.

Humor, then, seems to be the best approach when you want to talk about something that’s generally not talked about. By lightening the mood, you can diffuse the situation and make the topic more acceptable. The use of humor also makes it more likely the ad will go viral, being shared and racking up views on YouTube. The ads cited above have done just that – one has over a million views while another has over two million. That extra attention only enhances the value and effectiveness of the spot. While some may see the spot and only laugh, others will see it as offering a product that solves a problem they may have.

Are ads like this in bad taste? That’s in the eye of the consumer. When a company goes too far with its advertising, the public will let them know. This may take the form of comments on the YouTube post, condemnation on the company’s social media pages, and in the most obvious way possible – people will stop buying the product if they are offended by its advertising. But even in those cases, the company will be weighing the cost of the controversy against the free publicity it may be getting, so even condemnation can have a positive effect. Meanwhile, the boundary of what can and can’t be advertised, and how it can be advertised, will continue to be pushed – whether we like it or not.


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