You couldn’t miss it if you were strolling through Chicago’s Rush Street nightclub district, known as the “Viagra Triangle” for its appeal to middle-aged suburbanites on the prowl. On one side of the giant billboard was a voluptuous, lingerie-clad female torso bent forward in a provocative pose; on the other, a buff male torso with a white towel wrapped at its waist, equally ready for action. The billboard’s logo? “Life’s short. Get a divorce.”

 

Ah, adultery, manna from heaven for divorce lawyers Fetman, Garland & Associates, Ltd., whose telephone number was displayed prominently underneath this come-on. The billboard generated plenty of new business before it was taken down, reportedly because it had been erected without a proper permit.

 

American law marketing expert Larry Bodine devoted a few inches to the topic on his blog, blog.larrybodine.com. He found the ad funny and wrote that “from a strictly marketing standpoint … the billboard succeeded at three different levels: it got people to notice the ad and remember it; it evoked an emotional response; and it created buzz all by itself.”

 

But would such an approach work here in Canada? According to Calgary family lawyer Jeff Wise (of Wise Walden Barkauskas), it might be legal, but it would still be offensive. Wise specializes in child custody litigation and is a divorced father of five. With 60 percent of marriages ending in divorce and its attendant acrimony, he questions an ad that promotes splitting up as a great leisure activity.

 

Divorce hurts more than just the couple involved — it also hurts each partner’s relatives and friends, said Wise, “and (for the billboard) to be so self-indulgent or self-centred forgets about all of the other people who are affected by divorce.”

Among them, of course, are the couple’s children. “I see what happens to children all the time. In almost every one of my cases, I have psychologists involved,” Wise said. “To promote divorce is offensive to me, and I’m saying that as someone who does this for a living.”

Vancouver legal marketing professional Allison Wolf described the ad as an “extreme approach to legal advertising” that is more likely to occur in the U.S. market. Wolf pointed out that the Law Society of British Columbia’s Professional Handbook clearly states that “Any marketing activity undertaken or authorized by a lawyer must be in keeping with the dignity and reputation of an honourable profession.”

 

Brad Daisley, Public Affairs Manager for the Law Society of B.C., said the province’s lawyers follow these strictures carefully. “I’m not aware of the outcome of the advertising complaints in 2006, but I do know that no citations have been issued against a lawyer for an advertising-related complaint in the past seven years,” he said.

According to Wolf, “there are innumerable ways to market a legal practice that are dignified, ethical and respectful. For instance, the Vancouver law firm Alexander Holburn Beaudin and Lang recently ran a great series of ads that were informative, effective and in complete harmony with client interests and law firm values (http://www. ahbl.ca/Fresh_Thinking).” Wolf also likes the MacLean Family Law Group ad designed by Ross Fishman Marketing, featuring a bride figurine alone on a wedding cake, with the tracks of her departed groom clearly evident.

Morality and tastefulness aside, is a provocative strategy like Fetman, Garland’s useful for boosting clients long-term?

“From a strictly marketing perspective, I suppose it succeeded in breaking through the commercial clutter to get people’s attention,” said Patrick McKenna, a principal with the Edmonton-based law firm strategy group Edge lnternational. “That said, show someone this ad, let them study it for a few minutes, ask them what they think of the various components — pictures, copy, overall impression — and then go back to them in 10 minutes and ask them if they can recall the name of the firm. My bet is that 99 out of 100 will not be able to recall the name. Bottom line: The advertisement failed.”

“One of the objectives of any advertising we have ever done over two decades is to get noticed, remembered, and evoke an emotional response — but a response that invokes a positive or curious reaction — never risking a negative,” McKenna continued. “The fact is, good advertising hones in on the buyer’s motivation, promotes some unique and beneficial attributes, and assures the buyer of getting what they want. I think that this advertising was done simply to provoke attention with no regard whatsoever [to] connecting with real clients.”

 

On the other hand, Doug MacLeod is a Toronto actor who for many years was a divorce lawyer in Calgary. No longer obliged to worry about how provocative marketing represents his livelihood, MacLeod described the Chicago billboard as “eye-catching and funny.”

I look forward to the next in the series, presumably a billboard for a criminal lawyer that shows cleavage stuffed with cash over the line ‘Life’s short. Rob a bank. Just don’t do it too well,’” he said.

MacLeod doesn’t see anything wrong with appealing to people’s baser instincts to market a legal practice. As with all advertising, it’s a matter of taste and prevailing norms,” he said. “Most kinds of legal marketing focus on three of the deadly sins: greed, envy and pride. Even the bluest of blue chip firms pander to their clients’ desire to get richer. To date, lust has not achieved the same level of public approbation in legal circles. However, in private . . . ”

He admits, however, that he would never have marketed his own law practice the way Fetman, Garland did. MacLeod can think of several reasons for that, “chief among them the urge to avoid being the laughingstock of the local bar.”

Overall, how does a provocative ad like Fetman, Garland’s reflect on the profession of divorce law?

 

“I don’t think it reflects on the profession — rather [on] one individual lawyer’s approach,” said Wolf.

 

McKenna, however, believes it reflects “very poorly” on divorce lawyers. Still, he said, in terms of legal marketing, Fetman, Garland’s billboard is not the bottom of the barrel.

 

“Years ago the ABA did a video on some of the worst legal advertising and there were a few ads that were even worse than this,” he said. “The purpose of the video was to try to appeal to the legal community not to engage in advertising or promotional efforts that would degrade the profession.”