The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article out today (9/9/09) written by Steve Lopez entitled 'It's funny what passes for offensive these days.'
In the article, Lopez points out the divergent fates of two billboards in Los Angeles.
The first billboard is a stark yellow ad with simple black text that reads "Consumer Watchdog says: 'You Can't Trust Mercury Insurance.'" The text is followed by a referral to Consumer Watchdog's website. Their website features ten objectively factual reasons explaining why Consumer Watchdog believes consumers should be wary of doing business with L.A.-based Mercury Insurance Company. The billboard was located on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A.'s Koreatown.
A few blocks down Wilshire, also in Koreatown, stands another billboard, this one advertising Absolut Mango vodka. This billboard depicts a mango fruit surrounded on two sides by a series of wavy lines. That description might sound innocuous in text but if you look at an image of the billboard (you can see an image by clicking here) you'll see that the artists clearly intended to suggest the shape of a woman's vagina. The image, which is not on a traditional billboard but rather is draped across the side of a building, is described by Lopez as "a 10-story vagina on a building."
So what happened to these billboards? Mercury Insurance Company complained to CBS Outdoor about the Consumer Watchdog one. Even though Consumer Watchdog's billboard (and Consumer Watchdog's website) contains only factual information and the billboard was determined not to be in violation of any laws or of CBS Outdoor's policies when it was first put up, CBS Outdoor caved to Mercury's pressure and pre-emptively pulled it down.
What happened to the Absolut vagina ad? Well ... nothing, really. Its still up there as of today. Apparently Absolut has other, very similar, ad campaigns for it's pear-flavored vodka (image here), citron-flavored vodka (click here), as well as their mandarin-orange and peach flavors (I don't have images for those). Of course, as far as Absolut is concerned, these ads are meant to depict "streams" and not the female anatomy. Apparently, anyone out there who dares to think that a large corporation, especially a corporation that sells alcohol, would dare to use sex to market its products (especially in a veiled, suggestive way) must be deeply cynical and simply projecting their own dirty-mind onto Absolut's noble efforts to promote artistic endeavor. Whats your take on this?
So ... what's the lesson here? Well, if you dare to speak up and criticize the practices of a major corporation in a lawful and objective manner, you can expect big business to leverage its financial and political clout (Mercury Insurance is one of the biggest political contributors in the state of California) in order to silence you and your message, or at least prevent you from airing it in a public environment. What if you drape the image of a 10-story tall vagina on the side of a building in a major metropolitan area? You can expect to sell more products, get rich and face very little public scrutiny. In Los Angeles, economic truth is not welcome in public places but pornography is.
As Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog, puts it: "Truth is more controversial than pornography."