Warning: The online ads cited in the story contain profanity and deal with themes that some viewers may find offensive.
The advertising world isn't exactly known for its good taste, but the industry seems united in its revulsion at a recent ad campaign by Burlington Socks. The spots are so far beyond the pale that pundits are unsure if they're for real, although the creators of the ads insist they're on the level.
The Burlington ads joke about euthanasia and incest. Another features a profanity-spewing naked man who is only wearing a pair of Burlington socks. Just to be clear, these ads are for socks, the things that people put on their feet.
The spots' dark humor eludes ad experts such as Stephen Foster of "More About Advertising," who denounced Burlington's campaign as "staggering awful." Another well-known ad critic accuses the company of exceeding "all bounds of decency," according to AdWeek, which also asks if Burlington is the "word's worst advertiser."
How bad are these commercials?
The latest one opens up with a shot of a dying old man in a hospital bed. A young man -- presumably his grandson -- asks him if "he's going to die." Not surprisingly, the protagonist starts weeping, and at first the younger man is sympathetic. But when he spies the old man's fetching orange socks, he pulls the plug.
The ad has received nearly 36,000 views on Burlington's YouTube channel, though that figure likely understates its viewership because the spot has been embedded on other sites.
In another spot, a boy of about 7 or 8 asks his attractive mother, "can you sock me?" And in the ad featuring the nearly naked man, he dares the audience to look at him while arguing that what really matters is "authenticity." The ad has more than 53,000 page-views, while the "sock me" spot has more than 140,000 views.
Burlington Industries is a Greensboro, N.C.-based textile manufacturer that licenses Burlington Socks to legwear maker Kayser-Roth for the U.S. market. Germany's Falke Group is the licensee for Burlington Socks in Europe.
All the ads were designed to be viewed online and spread "virally," according to Felix, who describes himself as a "creative" with Paris ad agency Pain Surprises. He didn't give his last name.
"We wanted to create a debate," Felix said in a telephone interview, adding that Burlington is known for edgy advertising. "It's in the DNA of the brand."
The ads have "increased the perception of the brand," he added. Felix said they have boosted sales, though he declined to say by how much. Efforts to reach Burlington were unsuccessful.
Pain Surprises shot a "clean" version of the the naked man spot, but decided to use an uncensored version after consulting with its client, which found it "amusing" and "interesting," Felix said.
One of the goals of Pain Surprises was to "create something different," according to Felix, and it certainly has done that. Three more ads in the campaign are expected to be released this year. He declined to provide details.
Pain Surprises seems to be taking criticism over the ads in stride. In fact, the writer of the "Euthanise Me" (sic) spot has put the AdWeek headline questioning whether Burlington is the "worst advertiser" on his Facebook page.