Is it OK to use the Dear Departed in adverts?

Advertising is designed to get companies noticed and one of the most powerful ways to do that is to draw an emotional response from potential customers. Ads can make people feel happy, excited, angry, hungry. But is it ever OK for ads to make us sad for the loss of a loved one?

Where the Mad Men never got beyond ‘Sex Sells’, modern ad agencies around the world have recruited the ‘Dear Departed’ to sell everything from chocolate to dog food, cars to contact lenses.

In the UK, in some instances, the adverts seem to have been fairly well received.

In 2011, comedian Paul Whitehouse plays a dead father watching over his family as they get ready to go on holiday. The ad promotes the benefits of planning ahead with life insurance.

In 2013, in a dog food commercial, an older gentleman leaves flowers at his wife’s grave then returns home to reward the loyal Scottie dog that has been at his side all day with his favourite dinner.

But the Great British public doesn’t seem to be completely ready for sales messages from the other side. Earlier this year, fast-food giant McDonalds withdrew an advertisement over criticism that it exploited child bereavement.

The ad opens with a boy of 12 or 13 going through a box of his dad’s belongings, his watch, his glasses, a notebook. He then goes downstairs and asks his mum what his dad was like. She describes him and the boy, comparing his scruffy trainers to his dad’s shiny shoes and his blue eyes to his dad’s brown, clearly begins to worry that he is not like his dad. But it’s OK, because they both love MacDonalds Filet-O-Fish.

The ‘Dead Dad’ ad as it came to be known was among the most complained about ads in the first half of this year and was quickly pulled by McDonalds.

The acceptance of some death-themed adverts compared to the negative reaction that others inspire may be as simple as better writing and production. But there is also an issue with what has been called ‘Griefsploitation’ - taking advantage of sometimes raw emotions to sell completely unrelated products.

The insurance ad makes sense, advising people to plan ahead and look after their family. The dog food ad highlights the enduring love of a man for his wife through his care for their dog. The McDonalds add, on the other hand, can be seen to make light of a loss, suggesting a Filet-O-Fish sandwich will make things better.

Where the death of a loved one is used sensitively in advertising, it can have a positive impact in our ability to move past the last great taboo of discussing death. Used gratuitously, with the sales message crowding out our sympathy for the deceased, it may simply upset and annoy.

Maybe the safest way to deliver a death-themed advert, is to make one where no one actually dies.

In a German supermarket advert reminiscent of the John Lewis ‘Man on the moon’ ad, an elderly gentleman is seen sitting alone at Christmas. The ad cuts to his busy family all receiving funeral notices. They rush, heartbroken, to his home only to find him alive and well.

As his grandchildren rush to hug him, he asks ‘How else was I supposed to get you all together’… a very different kind of funeral planning.