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Mr. Brien McHugh's picture

Just a few days ago, in my Writing Across the Media I class, we discussed how advertising has changed over the years. I have collected digital copies of actual print ads from the 1950s and 60s. Typically, this is one of my most favorite lectures because I get to witness the astonishment on the students’ faces as the see Santa Claus smoking Lucky Strikes, babies slurping cola and a husband spanking his wife for not buying the freshest coffee.

Do you remember “More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand?” Or Delmonte ketchup’s new twist-off cap that’s so easy “You mean a woman can open it?” The class always has a nice laugh as we gasp at some of these bewildering, unique selling propositions, all the while smug in our knowledge that we have come a long way, baby.

Or not. “Sometimes it’s okay to throw rocks at girls” is the big, bold text on a recent billboard near Asheville, North Carolina.

The billboard, for Spicer-Greene Jewelers, features several dazzling gemstones, a company letter-mark and the headline text. As you 

might imagine the billboard has generated a lot of controversy. Some see it as promoting violence against women. Others think that it’s a genius marketing ploy. The astonishing fact, to me, is that someone high up in the jewelers’ company said “Yeah, let’s spend $1,000 to produce it and $1,200 a month to rent the billboard space.”

I’ll be honest…I think it was just a case of someone not thinking this campaign all the way through. The jewelry company’s co-owner, Eva-Michelle Spicer, said she even showed it to her grandmother before running it. And grandma didn’t have a problem with it.

So why do I have a problem with it? I feel it’s a symptom of a wider overconfidence in the business sector that the rules don’t apply anymore. It’s partly political, partly economic and partly cultural. I don’t want to pile on Spicer-Greene Jewelers yet this isn’t just about being politically correct…it’s about realizing that you can’t just say or do certain things under the guise of being good for business and, by extension, good for the economy and, by a further ridiculously long extension, good for America.

One of the print ads I use in class is from the Pitney Bowes postage machine company. The headline reads “Is it always illegal to kill a woman?” implying that your secretary deserves what she gets if she forgets to put postage in the Pitney-Bowes postage machine. Even if you don’t know what a postage machine is (or does) I hope we can agree that the headline is a bit over the top.

Advertising students, advertising professionals, company executives, all of us.....please sit back and think a little before you give the thumbs up to that next campaign. We know advertising works. We know people believe what we say. Please make sure you understand all the ramifications of your words before you push it out to the public.

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