Should non-political publications allow their advertisers to criticize political figures in their ads? Is there a limit of exhaustion to political sniping? And what the heck does George Bush have to do with video telephony?
Those questions sprang to Bob Mileti's mind when he saw this advertisement for the Bressler Group's Ojo phone in Appliance Magazine.
Putting the word "simple" in large type next to a presumably Photoshopped image of President Bush holding their product, the Bressler Group obviously intends to express the simplicity of its device by implying that even someone as "simple" as Bush could operate it.
Actually, I initially found the ad amusing, but wondered why a manufacturer would try to sell a product by annoying 37% of the market (according to the latest Fox poll). Also, why would Appliance Magazine -- which has little connection to politics -- want to leap into the high-tension world of political debate, especially with such a tired meme as claiming that a Yale graduate and Harvard MBA could be a simpleton? Piers Morgan tried that when Bush fell off a Segway four years ago, only to do the same thing on camera last month and break three ribs in a rather delicious bit of karma. After all, the most controversial topic in the latest issue appear to be the need for high-quality connectors.
Mileti didn't find it amusing, and fired off e-mails to the magazine and the manufacturer. (Mileti copied me and several other bloggers on the e-mail exchange.) The magazine responded quickly to acknowledge Mileti's outrage, but also to note that editorial control over advertising is limited (at almost all publications) to ensuring that no lewd imagery or illicit or illegal products or services get promoted on its pages. That's a fair standard to apply; the magazine sells its space, and the advertisers have responsibility for its content. That keeps the accountability where it belongs.
The Bressler Group didn't respond quite as well as Appliance Magazine. Their Director of Marketing offered a "sorry you were offended" apology that put the blame for his offense back on Mileti, but told Mileti they would not run the ad again, based on his response and the likelihood that they may have offended 37% of the people who might buy the product. Mileti shot an e-mail back to Bressler Group expressing his dissatisfaction with the quasi-apology and Bressler's reluctance to acknowledge their error. Bressler replied that they had agreed to stop running the ad, and wondered what more Mileti could want.
So who's to blame here? The reader who got offended, the magazine that carried the ad, or the manufacturer who injected political views into commercial speech? How many Captain's Quarters readers found the ad amusing, and how many found it offensive?
My view is that Bressler made two errors here. Given the highly partisan nature of today's politics, they should have avoided using Bush as their comic foil to make their point about simplicity. In earlier days, people would have had some respect for the office and not considered using a sitting President to advertise a product in any context, and certainly not an insulting one. Today that's less true, but it still seems pretty foolish to concoct an ad that will anger a significant chunk of people who might otherwise find the product attractive. The second error is using the "sorry you got offended" apology that puts the blame for the dispute on the other party. In my two decades in customer service, I learned very quickly that such "apologies" never resolve any dispute, but only make them worse, as Bressler and Mileti proved here.
On the other hand, it's really just a joke. I doubt that George Bush would find it offensive, or at this point in his term, out of the ordinary. I'm more interested in that big controversy over high-quality connectors.