Gary Lineker Walkers ad cement

I’ve long enjoyed Walkers’ ads with everyone’s favourite yellow card-free footballer, Gary Lineker. While I find his smug demeanour on Match Of The Day almost unbearable (give me Adrian Chiles any day), Walkers’ depiction of Lineker as a vindictive misery-guts has always had its tongue firmly in the right bit of its cheek, and you can’t resist the impression he must be alright, really.

But after almost 20 years of good clean fun, Britain’s favourite crisp and Mr Nice Guy took a dazzling mis-step with a recent ad that showed a builder getting his own back on the crisp-pinching Lineker by dousing him in cement.

Walkers had failed to realise that the narrative carried a terrible echo of an incident last March when a construction worker was killed by a ton of wet concrete falling on him. The inquest into the death is ongoing, making the timing of the advert particularly unfortunate. Construction workers’ union UCATT were among those calling for the ad to be taken off the air – pointing out that with 42 workers killed last year (making it the UK’s most dangerous industry), construction accidents are hardly joke material. Walkers agreed, proactively pulled the advert, and apologised.

But marketing experts suggest the uproar was something Walkers perhaps should have seen coming.

Robert Metcalfe, MD at PR firm Richmond Towers, told me that understanding the context of an ad is “the reality check that any good creative idea should be subject to”. “It’s a difficult thing for agencies and clients to manage and they are often curiously blind – carried away by the creative no doubt – to the potential to offend until it happens,” he says.

But, on the flipside, he adds:  “The right to be offended has been seized by almost every campaigner and pressure group. Brands have to be brave and rely on common sense as to where the boundaries are.”

Walkers will be hoping it has understood the boundaries with the brand’s latest ad starring Lineker, which debuted last night. This time, he is in hospital with a broken leg, and when his kids come to visit he won’t share his crisps. Using his folding bed’s remote control they snap it shut, trapping Lineker inside, before yanking the bag out of his hand.

Did I laugh? Yes, heartily. But a bit of Google research revealed that even this piece of unlikely slapstick reflects some real-life tragedies.

Of course, the vast majority of the TV audience will see it as a bit of harmless buffoonery. Just as, for most viewers, Lineker’s cement shower brought to mind the gunging machines of naff TV shows like Noel’s House Party than a real life fatal accident.

And it’s worth remembering that decisions are not taken hastily in advertising. All UK TV ads are checked by Clearcast prior to broadcast to ensure they satisfy the broadcast advertising code – which includes a requirement that they “must not cause serious or widespread offence against generally accepted moral, social or cultural standards”.

Ian Barber, communications director at the Advertising Association, said any advert making it to TV screens will have undergone “a whole load of testing and focus groups and checks and balances. The bottom line is that no advertiser sets out to cause offence.”