Stirring Up Trouble, Without Even Trying

By Warren Berger

Ever since DeVito/Verdi burst on the New York ad scene in 1991, the agency has had more than its share of controversies. It seemed to start with one of its first clients, a discount clothing store named Daffy's. DeVito/Verdi created a series of now-classic ads that told New Yorkers they'd be crazy to pay too much for clothes. One ad showed a picture of a straitjacket: "If you're paying over $100 for a dress shirt," the headline read, "may we suggest a jacket to go with it?" The ad was all in good fun, and was relevant to Daffy's marketing objective - but nonetheless, the agency soon found itself being picketed by a mental health advocacy group that objected to the straitjacket imagery. DeVito/Verdi was surprised, though not discouraged: As Daffy's sales took off, they knew that they'd touched the right kind of nerve.

And that was just the beginning of a series of small controversies that seemed to flare up periodically as the agency kept growing. For example, a lighthearted joke about then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in a DeVito/Verdi ad for New York Magazine, turned into a tempest. (At the time, the mayor was known not only for his policy successes but also for his tendency to trumpet them; and so DeVito/Verdi billed New York Magazine as "Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for.") In addition, the agency's ads for Time Out magazine used in-your-face attitude and language ("Our magazine is a lot like the average New Yorker," one headline read. I'll tell you where you can go and what you can do with yourself.") to shock even hardened New Yorkers. And if all that wasn't enough, the agency began to work on ad campaigns for controversial social groups and issues, including the ACLU and the pro-choice movement. With a resume like this, who better to address the subject of "controversy in advertising" than partners Sal DeVito and Ellis Verdi? one spoke to both men recently and they shared a few lessons learned.

This run of controversial ads seems to have started with Daffy's. Were you surprised by the reaction to that campaign?
DeVito: Yeah, the Daffy's straitjacket ad, that was the first controversial ad we'd ever done and it got some bad things happening, which we didn't expect. We first became aware of it in a funny way. Ellis and I were on our way to an award show. As we're arriving at the place, Ellis says to me, "Hey, look, there are some people picketing." We got close enough to see what was on the picket signs - and it was our ad, up on sticks. I turned to Ellis and said, "Do you think they know what we look like?"He said he didn't think so, so we just kept walking right past the protesters to go inside. As we went past them, they handed me a flyer that said, "DeVito/Verdi are losers." And then we went in and won awards for the ad. It was strange. I never expected that ad to be controversial - it's a picture of a straitjacket, that's all. We didn't even say it was a straitjacket, we just showed it.

Verdi: Those protests - and there were a number of them - were organized by a pretty powerful advocacy group for the mentally ill. They reacted in numbers, which sometimes happens when you make an interest group mad. But it actually helped Daffy's, because every time the group demonstrated, can you imagine the visibility they created for Daffy's on the streets of New York? It was phenomenal in terms of awareness.

So the client was happy about it?
DeVito: Daffy's felt great about it. The client said, "If I'm spending this much money on advertising, I want to get noticed." But not all clients react that way. I think these days, clients are more sensitive than they used to be. There are too many clients that are too nervous about too many things. There are times when we'll present an idea to a client and say, "You may get a few letters. But don't get nervous, that's a good thing." I mean, it makes sense to say that, because you're going to get at least one letter no matter what you do. So why not give the client a little warning in advance? Still some clients may want to pull the ad as soon as a letter comes in. And what we might say in that situation is, "What if one of these letters was written by your competitor?" And that's a real possibility - it can be a clever strategy by a competitor to get you to pull an effective ad.

Verdi: I get letters on almost everything we do. I think it's a good sign, because it means we hit a nerve of some kind. And I like to think it's because we're touching on something that's true. When complaints come in, we tell our clients, "Just have the people call us, we"ll talk to them." So we spend a lot of time talking to these people and you start to realize that a lot of times, people just want to talk to someone. That's why they're calling or writing letters. They want to reach out. They got touched by the ad, they were impacted in some way - whether it's negative or positive, it's that we hit a nerve and they want to talk to somebody. They're almost always happy when you call them back. And 99% of the time when you ask them if they will continue to buy the product or shop in the store, they say yes. So it's not as big a problem as some clients might think.

What's the strangest complaint you ever got?
DeVito: Once, we did an ad that showed a fruitcake being thrown out. The headline was something like, "Just what you need this Christmas, another fruitcake." And we got letters from somebody who makes fruitcakes, seeking an apology. I couldn't believe it - a fruitcake! But this person took it very personally. He said, "We make some of the finest fruitcakes and we employ X number of people, and how dare you put down fruitcakes." So I guess you never can tell what will get somebody upset. In another case we had a spot for gardening supplies and it showed a man sleeping on a hammock, and the woman puts a sprinkler under his ass to wake him up - but that wasn't what got someone upset. After that, the woman goes into the shed and when she opens the door you see flowers in there. And someone complained because we had flowers sitting in the shed in the dark. "Everyone knows that pansies are not supposed to be kept in the dark." And I thought, wow.

Verdi: I think one of the strangest ones was when we did a radio commercial for Meijer's stores, that poked a little fun at the notion of witchcraft. So of course, I got a call from a witch. And as soon as the call came in, I asked her if I could include some of my colleagues in the conversation and then I put her on hold and called about 10 people in the office. I couldn't take this call alone, I needed to have witnesses. Then she began elaborate on how, " this is a condoned religion, and you can't make fun of it, and I'm telling other witches about this."

Did she put a spell on you?
Verdi: I don't know. But at the end of the conversation, you sort of had the feeling that that was her next step.

Let's talk about some taboo areas. Is death a subject that causes a stir?
Verdi: We did a spot that showed a funeral and a guy gets put in hearse and the line is, "We'll all be wearing a suit someday; dress comfortably while you can." It was for a clothing store, Britches, and top of mind awareness went from being in the 10th position to being in the 2nd position. So it definitely worked. But you have to be smart - I wouldn't talk about death for a hospital client.

Ever put Hitler in an ad?
DeVito: No, but we put Charles Manson in an ad and got nothing but praise. Fallon in the early days used Hitler in an ad for photo retouching - they shaved his mustache off in the ad. It was a great ad, but I'm sure it offended some people.

What about religion?
DeVito: Well, we did the Kosher chicken ad: "It takes an even tougher man to make a Kosher chicken." The person who got mad about that was Frank Perdue. The ad ran and got a lot of attention and then it had to go away because of a lawsuit. That was a hard ad to sell to the client - two rabbis. They said, "We can never show a religious figure in an ad." And then I tried to preach to them about how it's okay to show Moses, and their reaction wasn't good. But Ellis was relentless and they gave in and ran it - though I think that rabbi is still a little pissed off at us.

What's your favorite controversial ad that got killed by the client?
DeVito: Also for Empire Kosher Chicken. It was a TV commercial and it showed the Hindenberg as it was about to blow up. The line was, "The Germans taught us something we never forgot. You can never inspect anything too much."

Verdi: It's one of my favorite commercials of all time. But talking about Nazi situations for Empire Kosher chicken - there's something not quite right about that.

To read more of our interview with DeVito/Verdi, pick up a copy of the Fall 2004 issue of one. a magazine, available at the end of October.

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