August 24, 2001

 

Removing Blasphemy from the Sales Pitch

 

Companies are altering their advertising

to accord with local standards

 

By Joshua Kors

 

Ed Stanger had been typing on his bedroom computer, cruising through cyberspace after a long night of work, when an image on his television set ripped his attention away from the monitor. Flickering on his big-screen TV was a car commercial, one for a local dealership. To Stanger's surprise, it employed the word "God" in its sales pitch.

 

Stanger is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the dealership's ad did not shock him because he found its language offensive. It shocked him because the dealership being advertised was his.

 

"I saw (the ad) on TV when it first hit. I thought at the time, 'I'm going to hear about this,'" said Stanger, president of Stanger Toyota. "Sure enough there was one call that came the next day. So I referred him to (marketing director) Lon (King). Then we had some more calls. We referred them all to Lon. And then he called one day and said, 'We better do something about this.' I said, 'I know.'"

"That's when we decided," said Stanger, "we better get something done."

The advertisement that had provoked community concern was a soap opera parody entitled "All My Toyotas." In the parody, a Toyota salesman proves so conscientious, he promises a good deal even to his evil twin. At the advertisement's conclusion, the dealer and the evil twin receive a surprise visit from a third sibling. The two brothers gasp in unison, "My God! We're triplets!"

 

King and Stanger both felt that referring to "God" in the context of a car commercial would alienate St. George's sizable LDS community. Exodus 20:7 states, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain."

 

"Honestly, I heard (the commercial) the day before it went on the air and I didn't catch it," said Lon King of Four Kings Marketing, who coordinates all of Stanger's advertising. "Then someone called in and I said, you know, they're right."

 

King and Stanger agreed that eliminating the religious reference would be the most respectful course of action. But deleting the phrase from the television and radio spots proved to be a bit complicated. The commercials were not produced by Stanger or Four Kings Marketing but by Saatchi and Saatchi, a Denver advertising firm that handles all of Toyota 's radio and TV promotions. Stanger Toyota needed permission to alter the Denver firm's "All My Toyotas" series, which cost millions of dollars and had been running coast to coast for over three months, concluding last week.   

  

Stanger began writing and calling the firm. "We told them we were going to pull their ad off all our media if they didn't change it," he said.

 

Within days Stanger secured authorization. King, then, took the television ad to Charter Cable to be altered. The radio spot went to Bob Patterson of Simmons Radio Group, the company that had been airing "All My Toyotas" on KDXU, KSNN and KZHK, among others. Patterson remixed the original commercial, eliminating the "My God." Between the remix and copying expenses, Stanger estimates that the alteration will cost him a few thousand dollars, but even at that price, he says, the alterations are worth it.

 

"Even to have one person upset about (the advertisement) is not good enough for me because they're going to tell 50 others," Stanger said.

  

Stanger emphasizes that his 13-year relationship with Saatchi and Saatchi has been a fruitful business partnership. But this is not the first time the Denver firm's work has been deemed inappropriate for the St. George community. In 1999 a Camry commercial that featured two teens in a suggestive sexual situation was yanked at Stanger's request.

 

"The kids were kind of fondling, kind of doing, whatever," Stanger said. "It had a sexual connotation. There's a lot of people here that don't care for that."

 

Saatchi's nixed Camry commercial and its recently re-edited "All My Toyotas" campaign have moved the company into the spotlight. But the ad agency is only one of a growing number of companies that have had alter their marketing in order to succeed in St. George. That group includes Chili's Bar and Grill, which opened on Red Cliff Drive to a warm reception, November 1995, only to be pressured into changing its logo and renaming the restaurant "Chili's St. George" in order to eliminate the label of "Bar." The LDS Church discourages consumption of alcohol.

 

Local mom and pop shops have not been immune to similar pressures. Just ask Lane Stromberg.

 

Before coming to St. George, Stromberg developed a series of successful businesses along the West Coast. As the owner of fitness centers and tanning salons in San Jose, Calif., he says he learned that edgy advertising can spark a business, attract attention and distinguish a company from competitors. But the entrepreneur was unprepared for the reception he received when he brought that same edgy style to Washington City.

 

In December 1998 Stromberg opened a coffee shop and sports grill on Telegraph Street, which he named St. Helen's of Washington. The name honored his wife, Helen, while recalling the famous Mount St. Helen's of Washington state. To market the coffee shop, Stromberg and graphics designer Jim O'Connor created a logo with mountains, silhouetted below the restaurant's name.

 

Within three months the logo was drawing heavy fire from area diners who saw more than mountains in the icon they saw a naked woman, with lips, legs and a bared midriff. In the icon's two snow-capped mountains, many saw lactating breasts.

 

"Our logo is a silhouette of a woman lying on her back, and the snow-capped volcanoes, subsequently, are her breasts," Stromberg confirms.

 

"I don't see anything offensive in it," he said. "It's kind of catchy if you want to know the truth. We have a mountain out in Hurricane called Molly's Nipple. St. Helen's is about halfway between Dixie 's Rock and Molly's Nipple. That's part of the logo. Kind of fun for us, but for some people, they don't have so much fun."

 

The St. Helen's owner says that, at first, he was pleased to have pricked the conservative crowd. The hubbub over the logo got his coffee house noticed. "I want to be controversial," Stromberg said. "Controversy is good as long as it's good controversy."

 

Few in town, though, saw Stromberg's nude logo as "good controversy." On April 21, 2000, when the advertising department at The Spectrum realized the St. Helen's icon was less than innocent, they pulled it, running a purely text advertisement for St. Helen's in its place. When Stromberg complained, he and the department's directors struck a deal the logo could run once again, but only if it were altered to obscure the silhouette's femininity. Stromberg called on designer O'Connor to perform the alterations. The graphic was further touched up by Kelly Campbell, senior graphic artist at The Spectrum.

 

Currently at St. Helen's restaurant, half the kitchen staff wears the original, sexualized logo on their t-shirts; the other half wears the new, muted version with the mountains rearranged.   

 

Campbell says presenting the newspaper with the original logo was a major miscalculation by Stromberg. "Having lived here long enough and having gone through the process of what people won't tolerate in their local newspaper, this was a big mistake on his part because people will not go there," Campbell said. "Morality is a big issue and concern for a lot of people, especially with the Internet and people's homes and whatnot now, and they're fighting it on a different level. They don't want this kind of stuff in their community paper."

 

"People view The Spectrum as their hometown, local newspaper," Campbell said. "(They) don't want garbage in there, and that (original ad) would be considered garbage."

 

Stromberg rejects the idea that his logo causes so violent a reaction. He calls his advertising "freedom of speech" and adds that in PG-izing that speech, the paper is only looking to shield itself from scandal.

 

Not so, says Brent Low, publisher of The Spectrum.

 

Low says that advertising clients are considered business partners, and as partners, the paper is duty-bound to work with their best interests at heart. If a client's current logo isn't going over well with the community, ad agents are obligated to inform him and work to improve it.

 

"We would be bad business partners," said Low, "if we didn't come back to them and say, 'Hey, we're getting complaints on your ad.'"

 

Low adds that in addition to making sure clients are hitting the right cultural notes, The Spectrum has a second task: to see to it that the paper itself acts in accordance with St. George community values.

 

The publisher points to a handful of recent controversies, all of which indicate the difficulty of reflecting the town's ethics. Among them: the paper's decision to accept an ad for Thunder Down Under, a scantily clad Australian dance troupe that performed in Mesquite. Some readers objected that the ad was in poor taste. Others objected to a series of "Men Seeking Men" and "Women Seeking Women" that ran two years ago in the classifieds section. Low has since discontinued the homosexual dating spots.

 

"They weren't right for the community," Low said.

The publisher also revised the paper's liquor advertisement policy after receiving complaints that alcohol ads ran on Sunday, the LDS Church 's Sabbath, and Monday, when papers are delivered to local schools as part of the "Newspapers In Education" program. The Spectrum's new policy forbids alcoholic advertisements on both of those days.

 

Stanger and King make similar efforts in their work to keep their fingers on "the pulse of the community," as King puts it. As to their personal reactions to their own advertising, Stanger says that's irrelevant.

 

"Advertising is for the public it's not for me," he said. What is important, says Stanger, is that he "reach the public in a positive, non-offensive way."

 

"If (an ad) is offending people, I want it off of there. You know advertising is supposed to be positive, not negative. If you're going to create a negative thing in a person's mind, your advertising is defeating itself. You might as well not be spending the money."

 

As for Stromberg, though his Washington business has sputtered at times, especially during the summer

months which he says he wouldn't be able to make it through if he didn't own the building the coffee house owner maintains his conviction that his advertising is a matter of free expression, not one of propriety. He applauds the 10th Circuit Court decision which came down last week, proclaiming alcohol advertising as freedom of speech, a decision which for the first time allows him to put a neon Jack Daniel's sign in his window.

If only, he says, he could have that much freedom in advertising his coffee house. He wanted "an icon for people to say, 'Oh, that's a kind of catchy logo,'" but the culture in Dixie being what it is, "we changed it around to try to suit (St. George), to try to make everyone happy."

 

Stromberg still imagines a move, then, to a city with less conservative citizens, a place where he can pursue the edgier advertisements he used to run. He moved to St. George because he loves the mountains and his wrists ached during the northern chills. But he's thinking now he can find both mountains and heat elsewhere, like in southern Colorado.

 

His Washington coffee house is currently up for sale.

 

Saatchi and Saatchi account supervisors Michelle Brown, who handles Utah 's promotions, and Brannon Wait, who worked with King on the Toyota account, refused to speak about the company's "All My Toyotas" campaign. Management director Matt O'Mara was unavailable for comment.