It's okay to show men getting hit in the groin, just don't mention the fact that women urinate. That was the message loud and clear from network censors when New York-based agency Amalgamated first tried to air its "pee ship" spot for Clearblue Easy Digital Pregnancy Test.
The ad shows what appears to be a futuristic spaceship, but upon closer inspection,
it's revealed to be a home pregnancy test, zooming through space. A narrator tells viewers the plastic stick is "the most sophisticated piece of technology you will ever" - pause for
drama - "pee on." Then a stream of liquid hits the stick, splashing in slow motion.
And that, apparently, made it too hot to handle, according to Charles Rosen, president of Amalgamated, who says he was surprised at the reaction given the amount of sex and violence in other ads, not to mention in surrounding programming.
"Men's sex sells. We've been hitting men in their privates for years to huge acclaim and lots of creative awards," Rosen says. "To say you can't talk about a woman peeing on something she technically has to pee on - we felt really strong that it was kind of a double standard with the censors."
The agency's goal was to get attention for Clearblue, and Rosen credited the client for being "incredibly courageous" about a concept that broke the mold for ads for home diagnostic products.
"Everything was shown as kind of Leave It To Beaver," he says. "One kind was everybody happy, smiling, they're going to have a baby. Or [there was] the pseudoscience, doctor-knows-best way to deal with your body. It was outrageously misogynistic."
At a time when Sex and The City and Desperate Housewives were setting a raunchier tone for pop culture, Rosen says, "Our argument was to shatter taboos in the United States, in the domestic market, and just keep up overseas in the UK, Germany and Italy, where the women's movement had moved so much further along."
Despite a toned-down version that aired on the networks that had balked (it referred to the "most sophisticated piece of technology you'll ever ... you know"), cable networks were more receptive.
The campaign launched the last week of December 2006 in primetime programs such as Bones, Gilmore Girls, Men in Trees and Ugly Betty, and it followed up with a full media schedule in January through 2007, according to Tricia Cekoric, spokeswoman for media agency RJ Palmer.
It was a hit: The New York Times reported in February 2007 that sales at one of the company's largest retailers jumped 78 percent in a four-week period compared to the same timeframe the previous year. In the first four weeks after the campaign began in Germany and the United Kingdom, Clearblue sales were up 74 percent over the prior month. The ad still airs in the United States.
The undeniable success led to a joint venture in May 2007 between Clearblue maker Inverness Medical Innovations and Procter & Gamble, which formed a dually owned company, SPD Swiss Precision Diagnostics, to house the brand and other home diagnostics products.
The partnership also put the account into review. A new agency, Leo Burnett Milan, was selected earlier this year. But Lesley Foster, a spokeswoman for SPD, says the change does not indicate a desire to move to tamer ads. "We didn't see the 'pee on' campaign as much of a risk," Foster says. "In the research we carried out both in the United States and the UK, most women found the ad 'entertaining, yet honest.'"