The 'Man sitting next to you’... Gone in sixty seconds
Posted on May 16, 2017 | By Iain Akerman

du’s new cinema ad was pulled because of complaints on social media. Was the decision a slap in the face for boundary-pushing work, or a deft move to avoid a strategic car crash?

You’ve probably already heard the story of how du pulled the plug on its latest ‘du Tuesday’ campaign. How it made some viewers feel uncomfortable. Slurping, burping, sneezing and screaming aren’t conducive to positive brand sentiment it would seem. Newspapers love this kind of stuff.

 

“We are aware that our ‘Man sitting next to you’ ad was loved by some but criticised by others,” said du via a statement on Twitter. “The purpose of the ad was to highlight some of the bad habits that are practiced by some moviegoers in hopes that it helps enhance the movie experience to all movie lovers in the UAE. However, we’ve heard your comments and decided to remove the ad from theatres out of respect to you.”

But there are perhaps deeper issues at stake for the advertising industry at large. Should the ad have been pulled so eagerly? Is client bravery being diminished by self-censorship? Have strategy and creative become disjointed?

“Du has been doing some great advertising for the last few years – I would argue some of the best ever films in this region,” says Seyoan Vela, regional executive creative director at Dubai-based agency Livingroom. “Work that stands out and therefore naturally provokes reactions. And if good advertising causes a reaction, great advertising causes even more of a reaction. It avoids being ignored and avoided like so much of what is produced.

“The downside is that anything that is loved is also more likely to be hated. Literally thousands of people could love something but just a few whispers of complaints is usually enough to make clients nervous. I don’t know the exact reasons for the commercial being pulled but I hope it doesn’t stop the client and agency continuing to create the brave work that they are becoming famous for.”

The decision to pull the ad will no doubt have been particularly tough on both the agency (Leo Burnett) and the directors (Ali Ali and Maged Nassar) given the history of the ‘du Tuesday’ campaigns. The first in the series won pretty much everything, including the region’s first ever film gold at Cannes in 2014, a yellow pencil at D&AD, and a rare Black Cube at the Art Directors Club Annual Awards in the US. Last year a follow-up won the grand prix in film craft at the Dubai Lynx, and even this year’s ad – the one that was pulled – won a silver (for sound design) at the same festival in film craft.

“As a piece of film it is beautifully crafted,” admits Paul Shearer, group chief creative officer at Memac Ogilvy. “But as a piece of strategy it is a Hollywood car crash that Paul Greengrass would be proud of.

When I saw it I thought ‘great ad for Netflix’ telling people to watch movies at home. Then I saw the promotion at the end and thought ‘doh!’. It put me off going to the cinema for sure. Made me start scratching to be honest. So yes, if I were du I would have pulled it. It’s up to marketing people to get the message straight. But still love the craft side.” 

Should brands capitulate to commentary on social media so quickly?

“We are rightly judged by customer reaction,” replies Shearer. “I’m not sure brands should capitulate on a knee-jerk reaction. But in this case, and the case of the recent Pepsi film, it’s obvious that the message is wrong and needs to be removed. Customers respect this.”

Fouad Abdel Malak, executive creative director at TBWA\Raad, disagrees. “If every time a brand has to apologise for an ad that elicits a few unfavourable comments on social media, I fear the entire creative industry would regress back to the Dark Ages,” he says. “It reminds me of the time when rock and roll was considered ‘the devil’s music’. A brand should, and must have, an opinion and a particular style of communicating, just like every individual within a free society. Yes, even if that opinion or style doesn’t coincide with 100 per cent of the populace (what we already know to be an impossibility), that’s what makes for good debate, breakthrough work and, ultimately, moves us forward while giving us an identity beyond the mediocre work out there.   

“An overbearing agenda of self-censorship and state control becomes detrimental to the development of a strong and invigorated creative culture. People have much more resilience than we give them credit for, and with the advent of some of the toughest cyber laws and social media privacy penalties, we are showing fear of this new medium, instead of embracing it.

“‘The man sitting next to you’ isn’t meant to be nice, it’s meant to be cringe-worthy – a caricature of so many of our real-life encounters with distasteful strangers at the cinema. I witnessed many people’s reactions to the spot, and just as should be expected, they ran the gamut. Laughter. Grimaces. Recognition. My personal favourite is ‘The Nouvelle Vague’ referring to an untimely fart, while poking fun at a pompous French movie genre. And why not? We can tolerate the film staples of violence and mutilation, ridiculous Hollywood and Bollywood plot twists, small children viewing highly-suspect content, and blunt censorship, but this? This we can’t tolerate? Please, let us have an off-beat ad once in a while that has a story that contradicts the norms and let it provoke chatter on social media. What’s the worse that can happen? You’ll make sure you bring a friend along with your free ticket? Isn’t that the point of the ad? Job well done in my book.”