Why powwownow’s Zombie advert offends

Ten days ago I saw an advert on London’s transport network. Called ‘Avoid the Horror’, it featured a group of Zombies standing around a commuter on a packed tube train. Their faces display a variety of scars, bleeding mouths and exposed teeth, distorted by plastic masks.

It was a disquieting moment because I came face-to-face with this advert on King’s Cross station and the irony that this station was the scene of the worst station fire in the UK was also not lost on me – I got to know several of the survivors well in the years after that – and none of them found travelling on the Underground easy, silicon masks, scars and all.

Worse still, one of the ad’s Zombies closely resembled me and my face in the early months and years following the car fire in which I sustained 40% burns.

And the ad’s call to action to ‘Avoid the Horror’ is just as disturbing, reinforcing as it does the harmful association that people who wear masks as part of their treatment and who have burn scarring, are to be feared and avoided.

All this offence just to sell a conference call system.


Changing Faces has campaigned against the offensive use of facial scarring, asymmetrical or missing features and facial masks to deliberately incite horror, fear and revulsion in popular culture for many years – our Leo film was widely seen in cinemas and online.

And we have also been raising awareness of – drawing attention to – our society’s tendency in everyday speech to describe scarring as ‘horrific’ and disfigurement as ‘terrifying’. It is the language of the horror genre – and should remain in that only.

The problem with such popular cultural references is that, for those of us who actually do have facial scars or whose faces are asymmetrical as a result of cancer, strokes or birth conditions – one on 111 people according to a recent study – the way that people react to such images and language regularly spills over into the way we are treated in everyday life. And that matters because it can make the playground a no-go area and public transport to be avoided at all costs.

I have endured being called Freddie Kreuger and Phantom by total strangers in front of family or members of the public. Some of our clients have been called Monster, Cyclops or Alien. These insults are usually accompanied by loud laughter by the perpetrators or obscene facial gestures or running away.

Such language and imagery, if left unchallenged, subtly encourages the public to view anyone with a disfigurement with fear or avoidance or caution and it makes the individual feel vulnerable, disempowered and unlikeable. The word ‘Horror’, for example, immediately makes a judgement on a person’s appearance.

We would like to see this offensive and disempowering wording replaced with factual words and phrases like ‘extensive scarring’, ‘a person with a disfigurement’ (not ‘the disfigured’), ‘has burn scars’ rather than ‘suffers from burn scars’ and we advise the media accordingly.

The fact is that people suffer as a result of the discriminatory behaviour they encounter from others because they look different.

It is also insensitive and disrespectful to the survivors who live with scarring from their injuries sustained in the King’s Cross fire and the Paddington rail crash, and continue to use London’s transport system, to urge fellow commuters to recoil in horror from anyone whose face bears a resemblance to those in the advert.

So what happened next?

On Friday 23rd January, I emailed Jason Downes, the General Manager of PowwowNow, the company responsible for the campaign, and explained our views. I was very encouraged that he called me very quickly, listened and took on board our concerns.

After two hours he called me again to say he agreed this particular ad might well be offensive although they had not in any way intended it to be, and that he had given instructions for the digital adverts to be removed with immediate effect. He also undertook to review the other locations where the zombie ads appeared (such as in London taxis) and come back to me in the following week.

I knew that the ad campaign had cost the company £3 million to mount so this was a big vote of support for campaign for face equality for which I thanked him – and offered to publicise his support. He preferred no publicity and I agreed that.

Last Tuesday he called me – and I assumed I would hear the outcome of his review. Instead, he informed me that the ad was to be reinstated following an internal review with the marketing department and their creative agency, Homeland. I was summarily informed by the Marketing Director in an email that

“After this robust review, we have decided to re-instate the advert as a reflection of our belief in the creative concept, its clear reference to the fantasy horror genre and the fact that we are in no way targeting or discriminating against people with facial disfigurement.

We wish to re-iterate that there is absolutely no intention to offend anyone at all. In fact, this campaign is built around expressing sympathy for all people at the mercy of public transport and providing practical solutions to make their lives easier.”

I immediately asked them to reconsider. Jason Downes’ final words to me were that the firm would not be changing their mind.  End of the conversation.

Quite an about turn.

How does a marketing department and a creative agency decide whether or not an advert has caused offence to people with burn injuries?  Did they run a focus group with people like me? Did they contact Katie Piper? Did they contact Simon Weston, our Patron and Falklands veteran, Pam Warren, the King’s Cross fire survivor, or the 7/7 survivors like Davinia Douglass who was photographed clutching a surgical burn mask as she was helped out of a station? As far as I know none of them have been contacted.

I am quite sure that this campaign will divide opinion even amongst people with disfigurements but Changing Faces does not accept that images of Zombies or other characters from the horror genre which so closely resemble people with burn injuries or other disfigurements are fair game for marketing departments and ad agencies to sell their products – especially when the public are asked to ‘avoid the horror’.

The Equality Act 2010 protects people with disfigurements from discrimination but that should be a last resort. Businesses should be tuned up to the modern expectations of their customers today not using worn-out and offensive images to sell their services.

Changing Faces is determined to challenge any example of prejudicial portrayal because we are not living in the Middle Ages nor in a fantasy land nor in a horror movie. We live in the UK and it is time that people with disfigurements were given the respect and dignity they deserve.

I urge you to email powwownow@changingfaces.org.uk and have your say.


5 thoughts on “Why powwownow’s Zombie advert offends

  1. A very nasty campaign. Your robust response is very powerful, and I commend you for it in the face of what must have been great disappointment. Their shameful marketing campaign is incompetent, ignorant, insulting and intolerant. Maybe one day they’ll join the real world and discover the best in people, but instead – as you have indicated – they have succeeded in continuing to make the public sphere a hostile place for anyone who is visibly disfigured. What a contrast to the opposing story in the North East where £200K was raised for a victim of a mugging. PowwowNow and Homeland have rejected an opportunity to do the right thing, and for that they can be pitied. They will never have the strength of character that Changing Faces epitomises.

  2. The pivot and final decision by PowwowNow “to re-instate the advert as a reflection of our belief in the creative concept, its clear reference to the fantasy horror genre and the fact that we are in no way targeting or discriminating” illustrates indifference and lack of understanding by the company’s executives. As a Financial Economist, I can assure you a well coordinated marketing effort to boycott the firm’s products (i.e. revenue) will at least cause management to think about being a good community citizen before giving the marketing department a blank slate. While boycotting or similar actions should be an act of last resort, sometimes they are worth pursuing. Any thoughts?

  3. Pingback: Company defends offensive zombie ads

  4. Pingback: Company defends ‘offensive’ zombie ads

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