Advertising folks have it tough, having, as they often do, to find the line between "edgy and new" and "offensive." This is especially true when their clients' audiences are wide-ranging, and collectively have a broad definition of what's acceptable.
I can remember many a time in my corporate career when I engaged in spirited debate with my ad department colleagues over proposed campaigns I knew were going to offend people in our target markets. They usually fell into the "humour" category; that is, they would have been very funny to some people in our market, and offensive to others. The fact that more people would likely be entertained than offended by them was irrelevant, from a PR perspective: the proposed ads were disrespectful of certain groups, so I knew the inevitable complaints would have news value.
In Denmark last week, the national tourism authority got a little taste of what happens when "edgy" ads cause bad PR.
The Danish tourism department, VisitDenmark, had to pull a video it had posted to YouTube less than a week earlier, following outrage among Danish citizens about the image of Denmark the video portrayed. In the video, an attractive young woman speaks to an anonymous man with whom she had a fling a year and a half ago, remembering fondly the Danish attractions they enjoyed, and letting him know their evening together had produced a beautiful son.
The video became a quick sensation on YouTube, reportedly attracting 800,000 hits in the few days it was posted (likely because it wasn't clear the whole thing was staged). Once it became known that VisitDenmark was behind the video, however, the news quickly turned to Danes' insulted reaction.
As The Huffington Post reports, VisitDenmark manager Dorte Kiilerich explained the ad was meant to tell "a nice and sweet story about a grown-up woman who lives in a free society and accepts the consequences of her actions." A sociologist quoted in the same article had a different take on it, echoing the perception that embarrassed and outraged some Danes: "you can lure fast, blonde Danish women home without a condom."
VisitDenmark is affiliated with the Danish government; and in this case, it appears its communicators forgot about one of their client's key audiences: the Danish people. This is a key issue that presents a struggle for many organizations: reconciling the needs, tastes and expectations of different audiences. The ad team may have been focusing on the target audience for the spot -- that is, non-Danes with the potential to travel there -- and forgotten its client's most important audience (the taxpayers of Denmark).
While Denmark is known to be a liberal country, it appears the ad team misjudged the public's tolerance level for casual sex; accepting a certain behaviour in your society is one thing, and being characterized and identified by that behaviour is quite another. It might even be true that opposition to the campaign came from a relatively small segment of the population -- but it doesn't matter, because the news value of a government-supported international message suggesting Danes are promiscuous is clear.
In advertising and PR alike, it's important to really know your audiences. The better you're able to predict their reactions to issues and situations, the more likely you'll be to create messages they find compelling -- and to avoid ticking them off.