In December of 2017, a social media campaign went viral that quickly became a point of contention across the country. Poundland’s naughty elf campaign focused on the popular children’s ‘tradition’ of Elf on the Shelf getting up to a few adult acts. The sexually-charged campaign definitely put Poundland in the spotlight in the final run up to Christmas, but was it a step too far and where do we draw the line on what is offensive, bad-taste or subversive?
To understand the issues some had with the campaign, it is worth explaining what Elf on the Shelf is – devised in 2005, Elf on the Shelf is a picture book about one of Santa’s elves that watches over children and reports back to Santa about their behaviour. The book comes with a physical toy elf that compliments the story and adds to the magic of Christmas for the children. To maintain the illusion, the elf has to be moved and hidden each night, so it is in a different place each morning for the children to find. It’s this part that has become a running joke with parents who forget to move that ‘bloody elf’, either that or some incident.
It’s because of the constant hiding and moving (or forgetting to) that a number of parents bear malice to the Elf on the Shelf, and it’s this basis that helped form the Poundland campaign.
Examples of a few of the posts include an image of the Elf playing poker with other dolls, with the other dolls being in various stages of undress. The image was accompanied with the text ‘Joker, joker, I really want to poker’, with some observers alluding to the text being an innuendo – given the content of the other images (such as an interestingly-shaped cactus) – it’s a reasonable assumption.
However, the image of the Elf holding a tea bag over a doll’s face – referencing the sexual act of ‘teabagging’ - was a particular issue, not just for the users but also to Twinnings, the brand of tea clearly visible in the image. The tea-maker was quick to distance themselves from the campaign, stating ‘We are aware of an image that is circulating that misuses our product. This is to confirm that we had no involvement in this and that it is obviously not reflective of our brand values.’ Poundland removed the tweet shortly after.
The drastic shift in tone from their usual marketing caused users to question whether the Poundland Twitter account had been ‘hacked’. Some criticised it’s misogynistic, borderline abusive tone and others embraced the bold and cheeky campaign, praising the change from the ‘boring’ standard.
Whilst it may seem ‘bold’ and ‘progressive’ to launch such a risky campaign, Poundland’s recent financial troubles would give them reason to try anything that would boost sales in the busy Christmas period, and despite the outrage received on Social Media, Poundland themselves seemed pleased with the campaign, with Mark Pym, Poundland marketing director saying: “If you think there’s been a mixed reaction you just haven’t seen the love on Facebook. It’s overwhelming. That’s because it connects with our shoppers. In fact, we’re proud of the campaign that has cost £25.53 and is being touted as the winning marketing campaign this Christmas."
So, was it all a bit of harmless fun? Apparently not – according to The Drum, the ASA received over 80 complaints about the campaign, with the main issue being that the ads are offensive for “depicting toy characters in a sexualised manner” and that they “were displayed in a targeted medium where children could see them.”
There will always be a debate about what is risqué and what is bad taste – it’s human nature – but there’s a line to be drawn when it involves children’s toys.