Lowe Commercial Spawns Spat over Shyness

When using humor to make a point, brands must be careful to test their messages or risk offending their audience.

When using humor to make a point, brands must be careful to test their messages or risk offending their audience.

The flap over Rob Lowe's portrayal of a painfully shy cable TV subscriber underscores the problems with using humor to make a point. You are bound to offend somebody in the process.

Actually Lowe appears twice in the funny, but controversial ad — once as a suave DIRECTV guy and the other as a hapless, creepy guy who watches people at a swimming pool through binoculars or sniffs a woman's hair at the movies when his cable TV goes on the blink.

Steve Soifer, CEO of the International Paruresis Association, expressed displeasure with the ad that shows the shy, unattractive Rob Lowe having trouble urinating in public.  According to the group's website, 7 percent of the population or 21 million Americans suffer some form of social anxiety, referred to as Pee-Shy, when voiding in a crowded place. 

You would have thought the YMCA or moviehouse owners would have complained. But instead it was from advocates on behalf of people with shy bladders, which just goes to show that what somebody thinks is funny is someone else's life distress. Marketers need to think twice about using stereotypes in their marketing materials for just this reason.

There are a lot of ways to be humorous and make a point without offending. Like K-Mart's "Ship My Pants" or Doritos' "Fashionista Daddy" ads.

One PR analyst says DirecTV may enjoy a boost for its ad because of the flap. But that isn't a long-term strategy for building brand goodwill.

Humor can be a powerful way to entertain and inform. But the humor needs to be tested and retested to avoid unintended victims and unwanted publicity.