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What lengths will an advertising agency go to, to grab your attention? We take a look at the fine line between provocative and thought-provoking campaigns that work for their brands, and the gratuitous and plain silly ones that fail.

The posh London department store Harvey Nichols has been in the news for all the right reasons – if you’re them or their ad agency. Their latest campaign uses CCTV footage of shoplifters being (Harvey) nicked by store security with the headline, ‘Love freebies? Get them legally’.

No strangers to controversy, for their annual sale ads Harvey Nics used impossibly beautiful and glamorous models posing in their latest fashions; only these models had damp patches where they had wet themselves. The headline urged people to ‘Try and contain your excitement’. Clearly divisive, some thought the ads went too far, others thought they took a timely swipe at stereotypical fashion ads.

Shock tactics are nothing new in advertising, but it was a very conventional Italian knitwear brand that really brought them to the fore. In the 1980s Benetton gave us their multiracial campaigns with the ‘United Colours of Benetton’ slogan; then came just born babies (and we mean just), Gulf War casualties, and a man with AIDS being comforted by his distraught family just before he died. For some it was seen as raising awareness of AIDS, but for many it was advertising invading private grief for profit. In 2011 Photoshopped posters of the Pope kissing an Imam caused more controversy, and were removed.

Provocative? Gratuitous? It’s a fine line. And when it goes well, it can provide big returns for a brand and define their tone of voice. But when it goes wrong it proves that not all publicity is good publicity. Lynx deodorant run funny ads about young people wanting to smell nice to attract other young people. They know sex sells and push it to the limit, yet are forgiven because the work speaks its audience’s language. But when a bus company used sex for cheap travel tickets, with scantily clad models emblazoned on the backs of buses under the headline, ‘Ride me all day for £3’, it just provoked outrage. For this brand, sex doesn’t sell. Not even at three quid.

The ads were swiftly removed.

Financial services advertising, mainly because of legal and compliance issues, doesn’t deal in provocative. And yet, Partnership, who specialise in annuities, have the courage of their convictions not to let convention get in the way of delivering a strong message. The award-winning work we’ve done for them includes boxes of donuts sent out to financial advisers in our ‘Extra Helping for the Overweight’ campaign; our ‘Sweet News for Diabetics’ ad; and ‘Revenge of the Pensioners’ work, which involved CCTV-style videos of pensioners exacting retribution on advisers who had given them bad advice on annuities.

The Partnership ads are funny (so we’ve been told), irreverent and fit the brand’s personality. Most importantly of all, they’ve worked – Partnership and AML won Best Adviser Engagement Campaign at this year’s Money Marketing Awards. And this is the key to whether a campaign is provocative or gratuitous, appropriate or inappropriate. Benetton pushed it too far, and in the end people just didn’t buy it. Colourful knitwear has very little to do with the horrors of war, no matter how big the logo. We’ve been working on the next Partnership campaign and it has proved to be as much fun, and just as provocative, as the last. Watch this space.