Legal Sea Foods found itself in hot water Monday after some readers said they were offended by a full-page Boston Globe ad that called Hillary Clinton a “cold fish,” all in the service of a sushi pun.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “cold fish” as “an emotionless person,” though many readers may also be familiar with the phrase’s top definition on UrbanDictionary.com: “A sex partner who is either not receptive, or not providing any emotional or physical feedback during copulation.”
The ad was part of a campaign featuring the company’s long-time CEO Roger Berkowitz as a faux presidential candidate, and jokingly employs much of the empty sloganeering familiar to those who follow politics and advertising. Think puns like “my first act in office will be to legalize sea weed,” and “I support the gay community: that’s why we serve rainbow trout.”
“In an election year in which political correctness has been thrown out the window, these ads do the same,” a March press release announcing the campaign read.
Reached at his office Monday, Berkowitz said Monday that he had an “interesting” day listening to feedback about the ad, later adding he thought it was “nuts!” that people read misogynistic or sexist overtones in the ad.
The ad copy was a comment “about [Clinton] not exactly being warm and fuzzy,” and not her behavior in the bedroom, he said.
“It wasn’t a statement about her politics or her background,” he said. “It had nothing to do with sex or anything else.”
He said the company made fun of Donald Trump earlier in the ad series — specifically, a joke about his small hands — and in the interest of evenhandedness, felt obligated to also take a jab at Clinton, too.
Berkowitz did acknowledge that the term, while used to describe both men and women, can also have another meaning.
“It wasn’t to make fun of a woman per se,” he said. “If it were [a term] that just referred to as women, I wouldn’t have used it. ‘Cold fish’ refers to people without a personality.”
Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz — “with a ‘V’” and “no relation,” he emphasized — said successful marketing campaigns often straddle the line between provocative and poor taste, but noted there are challenges for brands who try to strike that balance.
“Roger Berkowitz and Legal Sea Foods have pretty consistently run ads that people thought were either controversial or in bad taste,” he said. “This is something that Legal Sea Foods does to break through the clutter.”
“It will offend some people, but it will also get a lot of people to go, ‘oh that’s cool,’ and perhaps have a better opinion of, or even go to, Legal Sea Foods,” he added.
“Good advertising doesn’t blend,” Berkowitz agreed.
It’s too early to say whether the company got that kind of return on its investment, but if their Facebook page is any indication, many customers seem to have crossed that line from “oh that’s cool” to outright offense.
“I prefer my dinner without a side of misogyny,” one commenter wrote. “Thanks but no thanks.”
“I suppose we should be grateful that they're letting us know where not to eat,” another person replied.
“I plan work events at Legal all the time (in MA and DC),” another said. “Definitely going to stop that now that I've seen your Hillary Clinton/cold fish/Berkowitz ad. How disgusting and inappropriate.”
The Boston-based chain operates more than 30 restaurants along the East Coast.