Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Art vs Advertising: What Fluid Hair Salon didn't know...

The uproar has been deafening. People's social media feeds have been flooded by the debacle. Fluid Salon in Edmonton produced the above ad, and it has caught the eyes and ires of people across the country.

I don't need to discuss whether the ad was good or bad, appropriate or not. The people have already spoken on that one. You can see the creators' defenses here and here and Ryan Jespersen's incredibly well written response here. There have been a number of PR professionals who have used this as an opportunity to share conflict management strategies. (Namely, accept that people got offended, apologize and make good. Simple. Reminds me of another mess with an Edmonton actor at last year's Fringe festival.) There has also been a lot of anger.

The ad has been defended as art. That there is perhaps more going on than the obvious interpretation. But there's a problem with that. There's a logo. There's a tagline. It's not art, it's advertising. Although I believe that there is artistry in creating ads, advertising and art are not interchangeable words.

I'm not going to try to define "art." Philosophers have been struggling with that one for centuries. But I am going to distinguish it from advertising.

Art is meant to be dissected. Discussed. Unpacked. Pondered. Ruminated upon. Advertising is meant to be instantly meaningful. Straightforward. The smart advertisers tap into the skills of excellent creatives to manufacture powerful images. Images that tell compelling stories in as short and efficient a time as possible. Stories in seconds. No time to look for hidden meanings below the surface. An ad can make you think, but the first conclusion people come to had damn well better be the right one or you're sunk. What you get at first look needs to be the intent of the ad.

A first look at the Fluid ad is pretty clear. "Abuse is fine as long as you look good, and we'll help you look good." That's it. And that's all anyone can be expected to take away from it because it's an advertisement.

All ads operate a certain way, whether they are effective or not. An ad conveys a businesses beliefs and values, and promises an emotional benefit. Ads are supposed to resonate with those who share those values and beliefs, and who crave that emotional benefit. What does the Fluid ad say about what the salon values? What is the emotional benefit promised by this ad?

Jef I. Richards, an advertising professor, made an interesting distinction when he said, "Creative without strategy is called 'art.' Creative with strategy is called 'advertising.'" One has to ask Fluid what their strategy was. I think they didn't have a solid one, and are now suffering the backlash.

An excellent post by Fiona Farrell of Donovan Creative draws attention to the fact that ads are also a request for business. Fluid wants your money. That's fair, every business that places an ad wants the same thing. But by using domestic violence to ask for it, they imply that they believe domestic violence is a way to get your money.

I know that's not what they were trying to do. But advertising isn't about intent. It's about effect. The road to hell, you know. And there's a lot of amateur creatives at the end of that road.

This is your brand people. Your identity. What you are asking people to believe of you. Your brand is the emotional mythology of your company. There are some messed up emotions tied into that ad. And the biggest surprise? The people most likely to be offended by the image are the heart of Fluid's target market.

I don't think any of them knew that the target would be their right eye.


  1. Great post, Randy, and one that flies in the face of the people who keep saying "there's no such thing as bad publicity." that would only ring true if we lived on a planet devoid of critical thought, which this whole Fluid has proven is far from true.

    I don't wish Sarah and her team any ill will, but I hope they come about from defensiveness to acceptance. This was BAD advertising. And they need to recognize and hopefully apologize for it.

  2. I agree, Adam. Bad advertising choices happen. The whole nature of the business is taking risks and if you're not living near the edge, you're not going to be noticed. But you've got to be prepared to fall off that edge. And be willing to admit it. Eat a little crow and move on. People can be forgiving.

    My biggest critique is how defensive Fluid is being. PR 101 is being willing to say, "Whoops. That didn't come out right. Let me fix that." The window of opportunity to step up on this one is closing...

  3. During a Design Ethics course, we spent an entire class discussing the various, and now notorious American Apparel ads from a decade past that generated huge controversy with their usage of racial and sexual imagery. And while the value of the symbolic associations that would become attached to the American Apparel brand may be in doubt, their audacious 'shock value' ad campaign certainly kept people talking for far longer than they should have about a clothing brand.

    This feels like a similar effort, but without the international scope American Apparel enjoys. And with the overly defensive justifications Randy mentions, Fluid will simply add more negative associations for not acknowledging an error in judgement and directly engaging a public it's trying to attract. This isn't art to be interpreted, it's advertising. And the message they sent, hipster ironic translations not withstanding, missed the mark.

  4. I like how you distinguish between art and advertising. Advertising exists to sell a product.

    The immediate impression this ad gives me is that this salon is a place to go if you are willing to let men beat you up in order to get fancy jewelery. That does NOT appeal to me and I would feel slightly nauseous even walking into their salon.

  5. Great post Randy. Thanks for linking to my blog as well. You'd think the lopsidedness of reaction to the ad would compel any business owner to take any possible steps to rectify the situation. Not here. That's what has jaws hitting the floor from coast to coast. Once Huffington Post, Perez Hilton, Gawker, Jezebel, etc started taking aim at the ad we all realized this isn't something that's a) just a "local" story or b) going to blow over anytime soon.


  6. @Ryan - If you find the American Apparel campaigns interesting, look at some of the classic United Colors of Benetton ads. I think they were controversial about things that shouldn't have been controversial. They stimulated conversation about things that were in line with their values.

    @Liz - That's the power of the immediate impression. That's advertising.

    @Ryan J - It's interesting that in these situations, when the "offender" gets defiantly defensive, they stretch out the duration of the negative publicity. The only people who rally behind them are their true fans. If all we needed for business was our true fans there would be no need for advertising.