When the MBTA removed a series of sexually suggestive Bernie & Phyl’s advertisements from subway cars earlier this year, it said the ads violated guidelines against “prurient sexual suggestiveness.”
But since then, the transit authority has continued to allow similarly cheeky pitches from the furniture retailer.
Apparently, it comes down to how you define prurient.
Written and designed to mimic personal ads, one of the current advertisements is aimed at selling dining room sets: “Long, dark, good looking, and capable of satisfying 10 people at one time. Come on over and see for yourself. I’m into candlelight dinners and I’m not afraid of a little hot wax.”
Another is a racy come-on for sectionals: “I’m really into the group thing. And I go both ways. All blondes, brunettes and redheads are more than welcome. If you love leather, you’ll love me.”
John Englander, general counsel at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the four Bernie & Phyl’s ads taken down in the spring were part of a larger marketing campaign. The objectionable ads hawked mattresses with what the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority deemed too-literal sexual references, such as: “Hopefully it’s not your uncomfortable bed that’s making her moan” and “Is your bedroom furniture the most effective contraceptive you own?”
Other ads in the series, Englander said, didn’t run afoul of the T’s advertising policy, which forbids anything that describes or depicts sexual activities “in a way that the average adult, applying contemporary community standards, would find appeals to the prurient interest of minors or adults in sex.”
Outfront Media, the New York agency that handles all advertising within MBTA stations and on its vehicles, did not return calls and an e-mail seeking comment.
On Twitter, comments about the current campaign have mostly fallen into the “creepy” category. It’s also been called “horrible,” “risky,” “pervy,” and “tacky.” But others have said the ads are “too funny,” and that Bernie & Phyl’s should “stay saucy.”
The campaigns are “working for us,” said Larry Rubin, owner and president of Bernie & Phyl’s. Rubin said year-over-year sales have increased by double digits since they began. “We like this kind of advertising, which cuts through the clutter,” he said. “Younger people relate to it and remember it because it’s funny, it’s cute, it’s creative.”
Sexually suggestive ads aren’t the only type that have been derailed by the T’s censors. In 2015, the authority banned political advertising to protect itself from litigation after an ad critical of Israel created a backlash. In 2012, alcohol advertising was eliminated, although the cash-starved T and the Fiscal and Management Control Board — which oversees it — are now reconsidering that policy.
DeVito/Verdi, the New York agency behind the furniture chain’s MBTA ad campaign, has long embraced controversy, making its name with edgy advertising. The firm was the creative force responsible for several irreverent Legal Sea Foods campaigns, including one last year depicting Roger Berkowitz, the restaurant chain’s chief executive, as a presidential candidate. “If we build a wall on the border, who will eat our delicious fish tacos?” Berkowitz asked in one of the ads. Another alluded to Hillary Clinton as a cold fish, and a third referenced the size of Donald Trump’s hands.
In 2008, Legal Sea Foods issued a mock apology for ads created by DeVito/Verdi that compared the appearance of MBTA conductors with halibut.
A week after the four Bernie & Phyl’s subway ads were removed in May, DeVito/Verdi tried to capitalize on the controversy with a “Banned in Boston” ad featuring one of the mattress promotions that was removed: “Good sex should never be followed by bad sleep.” A black bar obscured most of the words with the message: “This ad and three others were ruled offensive and suggestive by the MBTA. See what they won’t let you see.” The idea was to entice consumers into visiting one of the eight Bernie & Phyl’s stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Ellis Verdi, DeVito/Verdi’s president, said he was unsure who at the MBTA “is making the judgment on the campaign.”
After the ban, Verdi said, the company reverted to the advertising campaign that mimicked personal ads.
“This is not sexual content with the purpose of titillating anybody,” Verdi said. “We’re affecting people, we’re getting under their skin, there’s no question. . . . They get results; I’m all about results. It’s not intended to offend anybody at all — it’s a smile.”
Whether they are prompting smiles, frowns, or groans, Bernie & Phil’s ads are certainly getting noticed. Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of advertising at Boston University, said the chain’s ad agency is smartly taking advantage of the controversy.
“It’s hard enough to get anyone to read your ad while riding the T, let alone having the ad work,” Berkovitz said. “The thing about pushing the envelope in advertising, whether it’s sexually suggestive or pushes some kind of ethnic hot button, you’re going to alienate lots of people and the question is: Are you alienating people who are your target audience?”
The answer, he said, is probably not.
Verdi said the ads are social media magnets that have brought the furniture chain more business, especially from consumers who might be looking to furnish their first apartment, condo, or house.
“This is very effective at attracting younger people,” he said. “We’re going to continue running this campaign for a while. We’re not planning to stop . . . Success is hard to argue against.”