Getting noticed: SW businesses use risky ads to get your attention

Just for fun, or gone too far: ads play off sex, religion and race

Walking by the Urban Animal pet store (formerly Pet Central Station) at 2106 Lyndale Ave., it's pretty hard to miss their new catch phrase blaring through the front window -- "Doggie Style" --a pun on their pet clientele and a slang term for a sexual position.

Inside, there are more sexual references, even made into hats and T-shirts exclaiming, among other things, "We love pussy."

Store owners say a liberal and perhaps libertine Southwest customer base enjoys (or at least tolerates) ads that are double entendres or sacrilegious. But while aggressive advertising has helped some Southwest businesses gain community attention, some say even if the naughty ads are clever, they can bring complaints.

Getting noticed Urban Animal Manager Jay Cowan said unconventional advertising grabs consumers and fights the store's competition -- mostly large chain pet stores such as Pet Smart. "We wanted to do something that sets us apart," he said. "We're in the city, and we have to have a different approach."

Phil Roberts, owner of Chino Latino, agreed and said that his restaurant's edgy and controversial billboard ads such as "Morning Wood: Breakfast with chopsticks" are necessary to survive against chains. "It's what you have to do when you're a little guy," he said. "You got to break through and get noticed."

An artist friend came up with Urban Animal's catch phrase, Cowan said. He said the clothing has sold well and the store has given some to employees to wear to get attention.

Saint Sabrina's Parlor in Purgatory, 2751 Hennepin Ave. S, is known for its Gothic-style apparel and tattoo and piercing services. Derek Lowe, a manager and piercer, said the Wedge store lures customers using religious themes, something many businesses shy away from.

Lowe said the store appeals to the liberal Uptown crowd. The painting around Saint Sabrina's windows is remnant of a Gothic-style church, with a north-side mural featuring a female religious icon with many tattoos.

Lowe said the mural's subject sports common tattoo imagery done at St. Sabrina's; she is no one specific but a combination of images such as the Virgin Mary, the Lady of Guadalupe and a Geisha girl. He said the design was drawn by a store tattoo artist and painted by a local muralist.

"It's big, bright and creative," he said.

By addressing religious themes, Lowe said the store perpetuates the image of not taking things too seriously. He said Saint Sabrina's has received no complaints.

Gone too far? If religion doesn't bring condemnation in Southwest, playing off race and gender can.

In January, Chino Latino took down a billboard that read "Our happy hour is cheaper than a Bangkok brothel."

The distain for the billboard resulted in an e-mail campaign and phone calls criticizing Chino Latino, preaching of the horrors of the brothels.

In e-mail messages posted on the Minneapolis E-democracy civic list, community members voiced their outrage and urged people to call the restaurant and complain.

Some argued that the ad made light of prostitution. Another ad claimed Chino Latino's Asian-fusion food was as authentic as possible without the use of dog, which critics said reinforced unflattering Asian stereotypes.

Members of the local Asian American community started an online petition and called for a boycott of the restaurant until it made reparations.

Restaurant owner Roberts said the ad campaign was an attempt to reinforce the restaurant's fun and exotic atmosphere.

"It brings awareness, and it's fun to not take yourself too seriously," he said. "It's not the Three Stooges; it's Oscar Wilde."

Roberts said some people went too far in expressing their disagreement, making personal attacks upon him. "Some people are wound way too tight," he said. "Get a life and take it with humor."

Urban Animal's Cowan said he's only had one complaint about the catch phrases, specifically the one that reads "Give your dog a bone damn it!" He said the person complained not about the sexual pun, but about using "damn it." A few people mentioned that he might have spelled the word "damn" wrong.

Cowan said to assure his store won't offend the masses, Urban Animal has been selective about where its catch phrase campaign appears, taking into account sensitivities of different audiences.

For example, he said while they did run their "Doggie style" ad in Lavender magazine, they ran a tamer one in the Southwest Journal. "We don't want to be offensive," he said.

Yet Cowan went on to say, "We felt 'Doggie style' was subtle enough to put in our window."

Does getting noticed improve business? All three businesses said they spend very little on advertising -- some just 1 percent of their budget -- and all said it was hard to measure the impact on the bottom line. More business could come from good service, products or word of mouth, they say. However, all agreed their edgy advertising attempts must help in some way.

Cowan said since the "Doggie Style" effort started, the store has received more phone calls. But he said the catch phase campaign is more about long-term recognition, so the next time people think of a phrase, he hopes they'll remember the store.

Lowe said Saint Sabrina's murals have always been one of its most valuable tools for getting noticed, but it's impossible to calculate the exact benefit. "Any type of advertising will help you in some way," he said, but business is based a lot of word of mouth and referrals.

Roberts agreed and said there's no good way to tell for sure if advertising helps Chino Latino, unless he offers coupons. But at least, he said, "It gives the Twin Cities a little character."