Kia's Pedophile Ad Campaign Illustrates Everything Wrong With the Ad Business

Last Updated Jun 24, 2011 4:47 PM EDT

Carmaker Kia (KIMTF) has some explaining to do about why it commissioned a print ad campaign with a pedophilia theme. More broadly, the ad agency business has some explaining to do about why so many of its "award winning" ads are just plain offensive. Not in a clever way, not in a sexy way, not in an ironic way -- but in a mean, unpleasant way.

The Kia ads in question (click to enlarge) were made by Brazilian agency Moma. One depicts a sexual situation between a male teacher and an underage student; the other shows two children in the Sleeping Beauty myth along side an an adult-oriented reinterpretation. They're intended to highlight Kia's hot-and-cold dual air conditioning zones for driver and passenger.

The Kia campaign won a Silver Lion at the Cannes ad festival in France, the most prestigious award show in the advertising business. But a look through the shortlist of winners shows that boorishness is a recurring theme.

This ad for Reporters Without Borders, which apparently shows President Obama groping Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also shortlisted, was one of a series in which the censorship of a blurred image appeared to make an innocent situation seem prurient:

A shortlisted ad for Kitadol Período Menstrual, a period pain medicine in Chile, awards medals to the men who have to deal with women during that time of the month. Kitadol has previously depicted its female customers as masked wrestlers, boxers and martial arts fighters. The creative team at ad agency Prolam Y&R, Santiago, is all male.

And candy marketer Perfetti Van Melle apologized to BNET for approving a shortlisted campaign for Mentos in India that depicted its consumers committing suicide, even though suicides among indebted farmers in that country are a major issue. In an email, vp marketing Wouter Dorhout Mees confirmed that Mentos had commissioned the ad from Ogilvy & Mather Mumbai, and said:

This campaign was specifically targeted at urban youth in India who are exposed to and enjoy this kind of humour. We have not received a single complaint during or after the campaign.

This campaign has already finished its run and will not be released again in the future in India or any other country.

... we apologize to you and any other person who has been offended by the ads.

Of course, the Cannes Lions are awarded for creativity, not effectiveness. This is what's wrong with the ad business: What agency people value (crazy, edgy work) is not what clients need (stuff that sells). There is some of evidence that really awful campaigns work because they break through a highly cluttered media environment. But the fact that the agency world appears to be deliberately applying its best creative minds to the production of the most offensive ads they can make is depressing.

There is hope. The Grand Prix winner at Cannes is this wonderful Samsonite ad from JWT Shanghai, which rewards careful viewing (click to enlarge):