Sailing close to the wind. Did Kayak's ad deserve to be banned?


by Magnus Shaw.


Perhaps surprisingly, I've only ever worked on a couple of campaigns which have attracted public complaints. One was a press piece for a now defunct cable TV network. At the time, it was the only service carrying the Disney Channel and we used the word 'Disney' in some of the headlines. This upset the Mouse's keen-eyed lawyers and the ads were pulled.

The second was a magazine campaign for a leading supermarket's home furnishings line. We arranged some products to resemble the SAS's 'dagger' emblem, adding the strapline 'Who dares ...' and prompting a furious letter from a handful of special forces veterans.

As I recall, everything was settled amicably in both cases and neither incident was referred to a higher authority. But elsewhere in the industry this does happen - as Kayak has just discovered.

Kayak is a travel price-comparison site. Earlier this year it launched a new TV spot which eschewed footage of exotic sunsets and glorious beaches in favour of a brain surgery theme. Yes, you read that correctly, brain surgery.

As the ad opens, we see a rather manic, bearded surgeon poking around in the cranium of a seated patient. However, rather than working on any ailment, he is manipulating the sedated man's movements to force him to operate a laptop and search for holidays. The doc complains he is so busy, this is the only way he can find a trip. His nurse, somewhat unnecessarily, tells him this is 'completely unethical'. The surgeon responds by making the patient swing at the nurse before high-fiving him.

This display was enough to generate over 400 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Most accused the advertisement of distressing anyone facing a neurological procedure and the ASA agreed saying:

"We considered the ad was likely to cause distress without justifiable reason and serious offence to some viewers and therefore concluded it breached the [advertising] code."

Naturally, Kayak countered asserting the ad was "so obviously a parody that it was not offensive" and reaction had been "overwhelmingly positive".
Obviously Kayak failed to qualify this 'overwhelming' response (and 400 complaints could be said to be overwhelmingly negative). Either way, their defence was fruitless, as the ad has now been forcibly withdrawn. So, is this an overreaction that's actually unfair to Kayak and their sense of humour? Or has the ASA moved to protect the unwell and their families from avoidable upset.

The first thing to note is the ASA has no remit to judge advertisements on their 'funniness'. Whether the spot was hilarious or not is beside the point. The advertising code merely demands advertisements do not cause undue and unreasonable distress. Of course, this is utterly subjective. You are perfectly entitled to complain to the Authority that you find Barry Scott and his Cillit Bang marketing distressing. They would be unlikely to act on the one complaint, but even if there were hundreds, it would still come down to the judgement of a human being as to whether the petition had merit. Censorship is not an exact science.

There is also little mileage in moaning to the ASA about the creative quality of a campaign. As far as the Authority is concerned, terrible advertising is completely valid provided it does not upset, offend or mislead. And this brings us back to the Kayak work.

When I first saw the ad, I found it neither amusing or distressing. If anything, I was slightly perplexed. The whole concept struck me as being little more than a weak student sketch - so leftfield and wilfully 'whacky', it was hard to fathom how it could possibly be persuasive. As someone who is often found rummaging around the internet for travel deals, I am presumably, part of Kayak's target audience. Nevertheless, I can say with certainty I am no more likely to use their site than I was before witnessing the advertisement. It's possible I am simply too straight, old and boring to appreciate the ad's frivolity but I think it's far more likely it was simply a poor advertisement. The proposition was reasonably clear - Kayak is a handy site if you need to travel and don't have much spare time - but the execution was so utterly daft and ultimately confusing, the selling point was lost. Offensive or not, my diagnosis is one of straightforward bad advertising.

Gratuitous bad taste is always a risky strategy for a campaign, and it's inconceivable the client and agency didn't understand they were playing with fire. Whether the ad deserved to be pulled or not depends on one's closeness to the worrying reality of brain surgery. That said, if it made one seriously ill person feel even slightly more anxious, it's probably best it has now been removed from our screens.

Watch Kayak's banned commercial

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant.


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