Taboos represent unwritten social rules that regulate human behaviour. Their origin is disputed, but their influence is widespread, affecting areas as diverse as food, sex, religion, and gender.
What matters to us is how they affect advertising. Usually, taboo topics are banned from our screens, with an allowance for cultural variation. For example, in France it’s not uncommon to see the female nipple depicted in an ad (when relevant), such as in a commercial for shower gel. In the US, India or China this would be unthinkable.
Where taboos get interesting is when society’s attitudes change. Advertising has always thrived on novelty – half of the game is to attract attention – so when a societal norm evolves to the extent that something which was previously taboo may now be considered acceptable, the result can be an ad which is exciting because it is portraying something for the first time.
The most salient recent example is that of period products, which suffer from a taboo which is truly ancient. A Latin encyclopedia from 73AD asserts that “contact with menstrual blood turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, the fruit of trees fall off, hives of bees die, and a horrible smell fills the air”. So, for decades, ads depicted menstrual blood as an eerie blue liquid. But, once societal attitudes changed, the doors opened for a new and more honest depiction of periods, which has led to superb Cannes-winning work by AMV BBDO such as Blood Normal and #wombstories for Bodyform.
Pushing against taboos is an effective way to achieve cut-through. One of the first ad agencies to realise this was Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which even incorporated the thinking into their creative brief by introducing the idea that an ad should revolve around a cultural tension. ‘What makes our target tense about the idea?’ challenged the document, before advising; ‘Cultural truths are always moving, so tensions are everywhere. The most interesting tension needs to make you squirm a bit. That’s where energy lies.’
They weren’t wrong. CP+B ads showed Domino’s executives breaking the taboo that a company shouldn’t admit to having a shoddy product (“pizza was cardboard”), and its campaign for MINI showed the client’s own product (albeit a counterfeit version) exploding. The trick seems to be to utilise just the right amount of wrong.
Jonathan Glazer’s 2010 ad for the British confectionery brand Flake went too far, and was banned for its over-explicit references to oral sex. And taboo-busting is not necessarily always positive. The ‘father of public relations’, Edward Bernays, created a campaign in 1929 which successfully combated the taboo around female smoking by branding cigarettes as feminist ‘Torches of Freedom’.
The most profitable taboos to exploit are those that exist in a grey area, a great example of which is kmart’s Ship My Pants commercial, from 2013. The idea of soiling one’s pants is obviously a complete no-no. Even public use of the word ‘shit’ is something of a linguistic taboo in the United States. But this commercial succeeds because of its lightness of touch, playfully walking up to the line, and dancing around it, but without ever crossing it.
The opportunity areas are the mini-taboos which are all around us, the kind of unwritten rules that are often identified by comedians like Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Consider the filmic energy that could be unlocked by basing a commercial around morally dubious phenomena such as close talking, farting, asking a woman’s age, refusing a gift, wearing a dress (if male), spitting, public nudity and yawning.
If you find yourself basing a commercial around actual incest – even by implication – you’ve gone too far. That’s what Folgers discovered when its 2009 Christmas ad, featuring a woman sticking a red rosette on her brother and declaring “You’re my present this year”, garnered YouTube comments such as “creepy” and “oh... oh no. No no no no no no NO NO NO!!!".
Be careful out there.