Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

The Huggies ad that caused the stink

Well now this is interesting. The Huggies ad that caused such a stink — no pun intended, but I’ll take what I can get — has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa. Having successfully* defended several ads subject to rulings by the ASA, I always follow their rulings with interest, but this one is noteworthy for three reasons.

Firstly, it addresses the delicate question of how children should and should not be portrayed in advertising; secondly, the blue-chip companies involved in this mess, companies that should have known better; and thirdly, the fact that the complainants who raised awareness of the offending ad, and took it to the ASA, are bloggers.

If you have not seen the offending billboard, it features an image of a toddler, wearing the product in question, posing provocatively for the camera while wearing an apron. She is evidently playing waitress for her teddy bear, which is seated at a table. The words “Work it baby” appear at the top right hand corner of the billboard. Lauren Beukes, the blogger who first noticed the ad and campaigned for its removal, writes about it here.

“Do I think this ad is going to inspire someone go out and rape a baby? No,” she writes. “But I think it contributes to a bigger picture, of normalising this skewed cultural idea of little girls as sexy. It’s a tacit endorsement.”

“I also don’t think it was intentional or malicious on the part of the nappy manufacturer or their advertising agency — just short-sighted, naïve and grossly insensitive to the reality of sexual violence.”

The advertising agency, Ogilvy, defended the billboard by arguing that:
* The scenario communicates the hard-wearing nature of denim (as do the words “Work it baby”);
* Children often role play with their toys;
* Most of the complaints came from Cape Town, despite the fact that the billboard was also up in Johannesburg;
* Several of the complaints resulted from the complainants having read an article about the billboard rather than seeing the billboard itself.

In response, the ASA was unmoved by the suggestion that Capetonians were just hyper-sensitive, as this did not affect the validity of the complaints. They noted that it was important to consider their ruling in the context of high levels of child abuse and rape in South Africa:

“Advertisers,” they argue, “have a particular responsibility to ensure that any advertising featuring children do not cross the proverbial “line” by attributing adult-like sexual characteristics and behaviour, such as posing seductively or provocatively, to children, who are not naturally inclined to do so.”

They then turned to previous rulings for guidance. In one case, a member of the public had complained about a Pledge ad featuring a little girl in a tutu and pearls, which he said would encourage paedophilia. The ASA found in favour of the advertiser on the grounds that the use of the child was in a context that was completely innocent; she was in no way sexualised. In contrast, the words “Work it baby” in the Huggies ad are associated with encouraging adult women “to act in a sexually provocative manner”. As for the child in the billboard,

“There is nothing innocent about the way the toddler is portrayed. The adult pose together with the red lipstick, the pout and the frilly apron are elements that when put together portray the toddler in a sexually provocative manner.”

Ogilvy defended themselves vigorously when the blogosphere first started campaigning against this ad, arguing that any sexual innuendo was unintentional. Which makes them either the biggest bullshit artists ever in an industry famous for bullshit artistry, or more obtuse than a parallelogram. I am staggered that South Africa’s biggest agency, which has an enviable reputation for both creativity and professionalism (granted, we are talking advertising here), and Kimberly-Clark, the parent company of Huggies, could make such a stuff-up of such proportions. Because while the agency is being targeted here, the client is just as much to blame, because the client signed that ad off — and anyone with a neuron and half a synapse could have seen that even if any sexual innuendo were unintentional, it nonetheless involved the sexualisation of a child, and that was utterly unacceptable.

(I’ve been in many situations where potentially offensive ads, or ads that could have been interpreted as offensive, have been on the table. Sometimes the client loves them as much as the creatives do, and it’s the job of the strategist to persuade everybody otherwise. Usually sense prevails. Not always. But usually.)

The ASA concluded its ruling with the following assessment:

“While the Directorate recognises that the respondent probably did not intend to convey such a message, the fact remains that the advertisement contains sexual innuendo in relation to a child, which is not permissible in terms of the Code.”

I don’t always agree with the ASA; sometimes I find their rulings to err on the nanny-statish. But in this case, they made the right decision. In a world where the people in this industry occasionally looked up from gazing lovingly at their own navels, fewer rulings would be necessary: what a pity that such a fantastically tasteless, utterly irresponsible ad saw the light of day in the first place.

* Except for one, which showed a man trying to teleport to his mother in Durban in a fridge. The ASA ruled that it could encourage dangerous behaviour by children.