Here's the commercial's setup: Guy drives his Kia car all the way across the country, encountering downpours and other adverse conditions on the way. At the end of the journey, he's surprised to notice another man driving alongside him. The man is wearing a dress, and he blows our hero a kiss.
Thus, notes the type at the bottom of the screen, the Korean-made car was able to endure "57 acts of nature . . . and one freak of nature."
Funny? Not to a gay advocacy group, which found the play on words offensive to one of its constituencies, cross-dressers. The group complained. The company responded. Result: No more ad.
Kia Motors America's decision to pull its commercial from national circulation this month may constitute a new high in advertiser sensitivity--or maybe just demonstrates how wary advertisers and media companies have become about giving offense. In Kia's case, all it took to kill a nationally aired commercial was a single phone call and a follow-up letter. Faced with the potential for protests and boycotts from organized opponents, many companies are choosing to simply back off.
The brief complaint came from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a New York-based organization that monitors the media. In a letter to Kia's U.S. headquarters in Irvine, Calif., Executive Director Joan M. Garry told the company, "It seems pretty clear that labeling someone a 'freak' does more than just make a joke: It passes judgment, it perpetuates stereotypes, and in this case, it stigmatizes an entire group of people. . . . Transgender persons [those who want to, or have, changed genders] are among the most frequent victims of bias-motivated crimes."
Rick Weisehan, Kia's national ad manager, said the company just thought the ad was funny. "It was meant to be lighthearted," he said. "We tested it, and no one took offense. . . . [GLAAD] found it offensive that we refer to transgender people this way. Well, I mean, that's a new word for me. But as I explained to them, our intent was never to malign anyone. We don't want to alienate any potential customer."
Though Weisehan did not say so, Kia might have been concerned that GLAAD's complaint could mushroom into a full-blown boycott by gays.
Though few advertisers set out to offend, some clearly step over the line, with calamitous results. A recent Super Bowl commercial for the Just for Feet athletic shoe chain drew so many complaints that the company not only killed the ad but filed a malpractice suit against the agency that created it. The commercial depicted bounty hunters in a Jeep chasing down and drugging a fleet-footed Kenyan runner.
But advertising executives say protests and complaints tend to follow in the wake of even the most innocently intended commercials.
"There's never been a commercial that we produced that didn't get a letter [of complaint] from someone," says Rich Silverstein, of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the San Francisco agency that created the "Got Milk?" campaign and others. "America is interesting because it has so many diverse groups. Americans are a hodgepodge of personalities and cultures, so it's hard to be all things to all people at once. But the last thing you want to do is upset a lot of people and create a bad image for the product."
His wish, in general: "It would help if we all had a sense of humor. Relax, America."
Few companies have faced as many protests and boycotts over perceived slanders as the Walt Disney Co. The entertainment giant has been the target of at least a dozen boycotts of one kind or another in the past five years, an irony given that its signature movies and TV programs strive for cheerful innocuousness.
Nevertheless, Baptists were angry that the namesake character of "Ellen" disclosed she was a lesbian on the Disney-owned ABC network, and that the company offered health benefits to same-sex partners of its employees. Catholics were offended that the movie "Priest," released by Disney's Miramax subsidiary, depicted a gay cleric. Animal rights activists protested the treatment of animals at the new Disney theme park in Florida. And Arab Americans protested what they believed were stereotyped characters in "Aladdin." Even entomologists were bugged by the anatomically incorrect portrayal of ants in Disney and Pixar Studios' "A Bug's Life" (the movie's creators had dropped a couple of appendages from the little critters).
"The only thing you can do is have a policy of doing the right thing," says Disney spokesman John Dreyer. "You put your best foot forward and hope you don't offend someone."
Disney says it believes in artistic freedom, but at the same time it sometimes goes to extraordinary lengths to tread as lightly as possible.
After the company discovered that an anonymous prankster had inserted two frames of a naked woman in videos of "The Rescuers," it recalled all 3.4 million copies of the movie in January. The potentially offending portion was visible only to people with special video equipment--and an impulse to go looking for something naughty.