How do you know if you’ve gone too far?  If you’re driving down the highway in your car, your navigation system will remind you, oh-so-gently, to make the first available turn.  Unfortunately, in a civic campaign it’s not that simple.

How many times have we seen an advertisement, statement, or quote and instinctively knew that it crossed the line?  The recent ad by the National Rifle Association comes to mind – you know, the one claiming that because President Obama’s kids get armed protection in school, our kids should too.  By all accounts the ad went too far, and it seriously backfired.

Compare that to the old “this is your brain/this is your brain on drugs” ad, showing an egg before and after it hits a frying pan.  It was jarring, yes, but also effective – and it generated lots of conversation.  Another ad (pictured below, possibly NSFW) was part of a campaign to stop violence and rape toward women. It took the stigma attached to rape head-on, forcing the viewer to reflect on their own preconceptions and generating lots of conversation.  Some thought it went too far, but many, many others thought it was extremely effective.

Recently a civic campaign that Denny Civic Solutions is working on was confronted with the “does this go too far?” question.  One of the objectives of that campaign is to convince legislators to fully fund many human service programs, especially mental health programs that have been drastically cut in the last several years.  Trying to build off of the current national discussion on mental illness, the campaign developed a flier that asked if we were “crazy” for cutting funding to mental health.

The intent of the ad was to get key decision makers thinking differently, and at first glance I loved it. But immediately after professing my enthusiastic support, some members of the team expressed concern.

The concern was that the flier may reinforce the stigma around mental illness and, just as importantly, cause conflict with the other advocates that formed part of the campaign’s broad coalition.  As concerning as the first point was, I was more concerned about splitting the coalition – or letting the opposition use the ad to do the same. After all, coalitions are essential to almost any successful civic campaign, and after checking with various members of the coalition (some who loved the ad, some who were concerned, and some who hated it) we decided not to go “that far.”

So what lessons are there to be learned from this, and what guidelines should you use to determine if you’ve gone “too far?”

  1. Make sure you develop a culture of openness within your team and coalition – If people don’t feel comfortable about voicing their ideas, suggestions, or objections, you may not know you’ve gone too far until it’s too late.
  2. Take the time to make an informed decision – Timing is everything, and in a fast-paced campaign time can feel extremely compressed.  But it almost always pays to take 24 hours to think about the impact of your message.
  3. Don’t be afraid to push for controversial messaging – Even if you don’t use the advertisement, never fear pushing for that kind of bold thinking in a campaign.
  4. Value the coalition but be wary of going “vanilla.” –Coalition cohesiveness and strength are important in a campaign.  But at the same time, you have to balance the need for a strong coalition against weakening a message to the point of being ineffective.
  5. Always keep in mind the ultimate objective – This is the “gut check” moment. What good does a controversial message do if it gets in the way of accomplishing the ultimate objective?  Ask yourself, “In the end, will this help advance the objective?”  If the answer is no, then it’s not worth it.

What do you think?  How do you check if you have gone too far?

Controversial Ad Campaign