Complaints prompt Bic to pull death row pen commercial
When it launched its disposable lighter with the slogan "Flick Your Bic" in the 1970s, the manufacturer known mostly for its pens gained a reputation for skirting the boundaries of appropriate advertising. But Bic Canada is now apologizing for an ad it says crossed the line.
On Monday, the company began airing its Canadian back-to-school campaign for Bic pens. The television ad, which aired in all provinces except Quebec, featured a man at a desk deciding the fates of prisoners in a foreign jail.
In the spot, the prisoners are lined up before a uniformed official, who uses a stamp on their documents to declare a series of them "condemned." He then says one prisoner will be pardoned, but when he tries to sign the document, his pen does not work. When an attractive woman shows up at the door, in the interest of saving time, the man uses his "condemned" stamp and follows her from the room.
The commercial finished with the tag line, "Want things to go smoothly? Get a Bic pen with Easy-Glide ink."
All of the prisoners in the ad, as well as the man deciding their fate, are Asian, and the "condemned" stamp uses Asian-style script. The official is not speaking English and the commercial is subtitled.
Bic Canada began hearing from people who were offended by the ad almost immediately, and by Tuesday afternoon, the day after its launch, decided to pull it off the air. As of Thursday afternoon, it had received 48 e-mails complaining about the commercial.
The majority of those messages mentioned the fact that viewers were offended by the racial tone of the ads. Complaints described the ad as being "racist," "insensitive" and "tasteless."
A fine-print disclaimer at the beginning of the ad specifies that the setting is a "fictitious country," but this did not mollify viewers.
"People just found it offensive ... ," company spokeswoman Linda Kwong said. "We're trying to do the right thing."
Bic Canada announced its decision on Thursday, once it was sure the commercial had been pulled from all of its TV channels. It did not run online and the company is monitoring YouTube and other sites to ensure it does not find a second life there. It was a Canadian-specific campaign.
"We're not proud of the ad," Ms. Kwong said.
The agency responsible for the ad, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, won the Canadian Bic account for its stationery, lighters and shavers in August, 2010. According to Ms. Kwong, CP+B is aware of the backlash.
It's an inconvenient time for the slip-up, because Bic does not regularly advertise on TV, except during the crucial back-to-school season.
The company is replacing the controversial ad with TV commercials it has run in the past.