How Ridiculously Controversial Can Television Advertisements Get?

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Controversial Television Advertising

There have been hundreds and thousands of controversies and debates over the content of television advertisements overs the years. Often, it is these controversies that make a particular advertisement popular, and a subject of curiosity. Here’s a bit about controversies in television advertising.

Television, the idiot box, entered common household by the 1950s and needless to say, it exposed us to information like never before. Even today, as good as entire nations are watching and listening closely to each and every word uttered (on TV) for a set amount of time. Though most of us are not very interested in watching commercials that are aired on television, certain ads have remained popular for a long time due to various reasons, one of them being their controversial content.

Causes of Controversy

Television advertising is generally a thirty-second audio-visual clipping telling us the features and advantages of a particular product. Since the time span of an advertisement is so limited, its content needs be exciting, catchy and short, but at the same time must get the point across immediately. However, in this process advertisers sometimes tend to include debatable content – what may be passé in one country may be blasphemy in another. This is one of the main reasons why even multinationals seldom keep the same advertising content across countries, leave alone continents.

In the field of television advertising, controversies can be caused due to various factors. Some of them are as under:


With the advent of 24×7 news channels in the recent past, the media is full of political news feeds from all over the world. Most people across the globe love to watch these channels after a tiresome day and hence possess knowledge of the happenings in the political sphere of the world. Advertisers often attempt to take advantage of this and base the content of their advertisements on important global political events so that viewers get attracted towards the ad and eventually towards the product. However, using such content in advertisements can lead to great controversy.


Religion, the set of values directing people’s lives, is the weak point of most people across continents. Anything that viewers think is offending their religious sentiments becomes a subject of controversy that stirs up the entire community and eventually the nation as a whole. Moreover, if an international ad contains any such religiously offensive matter, it may snowball to a very big controversy.

Gender and Race
Gender and race are two other factors making numerous advertisements controversial, alongside religion. Ads portraying women as the weaker sex, or depicting men and women in a clichéd manner, often tend to create controversies. On the other hand, advertisements having racist comments/content are bound to create an uproar in the media, as it is racism is a criminal offense in many countries.

Sex has always been a matter of controversy, even in print media. The television, a form of audio-visual media, goes one step even further. Adverts having sexually explicit content may succeed in seeking viewers attention but may have an adverse impact on underage children who might be watching TV at that time. Moreover, open discussions about sex are more often than not considered taboo in many cultures around the world.

Sexual Inclination
Some advertisements, in order to grab attention and capture market use content depicting same-sex relationships. While in some countries, such as France and Australia, sexual affiliations have a legal standing, they are considered immoral or a taboo in many other cultures.

Unethical Products
Advertisements of morally objectionable products such as tobacco, cigarettes and alcohol has always stirred up controversy. The basic controversy is against the promotion of these objects because they are known to cause harm to their regular users in the long-run. Moreover, many times, these advertisements have immoral content which add to the controversy.


Sometimes, advertisements portray serious history in a very comical and farcical way. People and nations tend to be sensitive about their history and respect it. Depiction of important historic events and happenings in a humorous manner may not be taken positively and this creates controversies.

Famous People

There are many advertisements that feature or dramatically represent famous personalities and public icons or important figures in order to grab the attention of the viewers or focus on their products. A large number of such advertisements land up in trouble creating huge controversy as people sometimes take an offense about content against their icons whom they admire.

Physical Traits

Many advertisements directly target physical traits of people in order to convince consumers how their products are useful. Such advertisements generate controversy for hurting the sentiments of people relating to their physical appearance.


There are a lot of commercials that contain disheartening matter on issues relating to child abuse, domestic violence, animal exploitation and other forms of abuse as well. Though many of these ads are public awareness campaigns relating to such issues, the scenes they depict can often be very disturbing.

Although controversial advertising is said to disturb people at the most, there are other ads that have raised the heckle of consumers. False advertising stands high on this list. It happens when a company makes false statements, in a deliberate manner, in order to generate consumer interest and therefore, gain revenue.

Famous Controversial Advertisements

As seen above, controversy in television advertising can be caused by anything from religion to general opinion. Some commercials generate controversy just by being there, for instance the Crazy Frog advertisement which was broadcast on Belgian Television. Some parents complained that the frog in the advertisement appeared to have genitalia, while some others complained about the frequency of the advertisement. Some ads that became subjects of public curiosity by stirring up maximum controversies include the following:

Daisy Girl: President Johnson’s Election Campaign

The ad showing a little girl was aired in the United States during the presidential elections of 1964 as part of president Lyndon B. Johnson’s election campaign. It began with a little girl counting petals in a meadow full of daisies. Suddenly, she looks at the sky and spots something strange and then the screen goes blank for a moment. After the screen comes back to life, a flash and a cloud, that appears after a nuclear explosion, are seen. A male voice then says, “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” It was aired only once and became one of the most controversial ads in the United States for using something as horrible as a nuclear war in its content.

Hitler and a Woman: AIDS Awareness Campaign

As a part of AIDS awareness campaign that stirred up a major controversy in Germany in 2009 showed Hitler and Stalin having sex with a woman. Supposedly, the ad aimed at highlighting the dangers of unprotected sex. Because of its content (couple having sex), it was not allowed to be broadcast before 9 p.m. each day. The ad shows Adolf Hitler’s face (for the man) and shows the slogan, ‘AIDS is a mass murderer”. The ad was telecast across Europe making organizations working for AIDS patients condemn it, questioning the comparison that was made between mass murderers and people with AIDS.

Ashton Kutcher Popchips

A huge controversy stirred up when, recently, Ashton Kutcher, the actor, did an ad for a chips brand called ‘Popchips’. He poses as Raj, a 34-year-old Indian Bollywood director, struggling in search of true love. He is dressed in traditional Indian clothing and flaunts a kind of Indian accent. Even more shocking is the brown make-up that he has applied in order to look ‘Indian’. All this became a subject of a big international debate when many viewers termed this ad as highly ‘racist’.

Heinz: Deli Mayo

An ad featuring two kids, a girl and a boy who refer to a male chef as their ‘mum’ created quite a controversy in the U.K. The chef is shown making sandwiches for the kids in a British family kitchen. The kids’ father, seemingly late for work, hurries past and bids a goodbye to the family after which he begins to leave. However, he is called back by the ‘mum’ for a more intimate adieu. The ad then features a kiss between the two men after which, owing to many complaints by the viewers about the ad being “offensive” and “inappropriate”, it was eventually banned during that period of the day when children could be watching.

Egyptian Anti-Spy Ad

About a year and a half after the Tahrir Square Uprising in Egypt, a very controversial ad was flashed on numerous Egyptian television channels. It features three Egyptian men sitting in a coffee shop when a foreigner walks in and joins them. All of them start talking on a very friendly note. Suddenly, one of the Egyptians speaks about some controversy against the army, that he supposedly overheard on the train. The foreigner immediately takes his mobile and texts this information to someone. A public message then appears on the screen, “Every word has a price. A word can save a nation.” Following serious opposition from the international community, this advert, much interpreted as an ‘anti-spy campaign’, was taken off air.

Controversial advertising does have its returns as well as pitfalls. While many companies may be asked to pay a fine if their ads are deemed to be controversial, there have been cases where the person responsible for the commercials has been jailed. For example, a few years ago, an in-house advertising idea caused employees of a bank to be put into prison. Their ad copy said that they wished to search for terrorists who could give them the most number of victims for their insurance policies. On the other hand, there have also been cases wherein the censoring authorities such as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have implied certain restrictions and continued airing the ads.

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