J. Crew Ad With Boy in Pink Nail Polish: Red, White and Blue…and Pink?

PHOTO: A new ad for JCrew shows the companys president painting her sons toenails pink.
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I'm popping open a can of diet root beer and slowly pouring it over ice in my pilsner glass reserved for this precise ceremony. I'm taking my time because this article will be difficult to craft. There is a large sleeping animal resembling an 800 pound gorilla in the corner of my office and I don't want to disturb him with the sound of my keyboard.

Last week, an ad mailed to J. Crew customers featured a picture of President and Creative Director Jenna Lyons painting her son's toenails hot pink.

"Lucky for me," her quote reads, "I ended up with a son whose favorite color is pink."

The ad is causing quite a controversy, first on the Internet and now in the print and broadcast media. As we are living through a period of polarizing politics, slowly coming out of our worst recession ever and entering the presidential campaign season, we are entering into a triple witching hour for advertisers. Their need to attract a wide range of consumers will increasingly clash with groups organized around their strong beliefs and preferences.

Other marketers are directly targeting groups in ways that may be offensive to some - but these campaigns often fly under the radar. For instance, American Airlines, Amtrak, Marriott and others all have specific micro-sites targeting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) travelers. They are trying to capture a portion of this market that represents a significant portion of vacation-travel spending.

The list of companies over the past decade or so that directly target the LGBT market is significant and most do it in a way that is not overt to the general market by targeting specific publications, media channels and events. But as LGBT groups have gotten more organized and social media have increased, so too have their ability to put pressure on companies that are perceived not to be "gay friendly."

Witness Target's recent run-in with Lady Gaga. Target contributed money to a candidate who does not support gay marriage. Lady Gaga responded by cancelling a deal with Target to release a special version of her CD in Target stores with extra tracks. Target's CEO, Greg Steinhafel, issued an apology for the contribution.

Gay and Transgender Community: Advertising Target

You can see how this can get complicated quickly. Everyone is organized, from conservatives to liberals to ethnic groups, and there are widely varying opinions, all held strongly.

How far could it go? In the U.K., PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is running a highly polarizing billboard that reads, "Feeding Kids Meat is Child Abuse." Hunt's recently pulled an ad for Manwich in which a man is slapped and told to stop acting effeminate if he wants to eat a Manwich. In Chicago, an anti-abortion group called Life Always has placed billboards, to the public outcry of many Chicagoans, with a picture of Obama and the slogan, "Every 21 minutes, our next possible leader is aborted," to decry the disproportionately high rates of abortion among African American women.

So strap in and get ready for a bumpy ride. The Internet, social media, smart phones and reality TV are practically incendiary devices when it comes to fueling controversy.

They allow people to espouse their opinions and take sides with lightning speed. A topic can go around the world twice on the Twittersphere in the time it takes to locate a Starbucks, order and receive a Frappe Mochachino latte. Politically, the numbers in the major parties are close and each feels it is an issue away from having either a majority or being relegated to the minority party.

So as we speed along the tracks to the 2012 presidential election expect parties, interest groups and concerned citizens alike to be critically focused on the advertising and marketing practices of companies.

Back to the child with the pink toes. Psychiatrists, sociologists, activist groups, concerned citizens and zoologists (okay, I made the last one up) have all weighed in as to whether it is innocent fun with mom or gender-bending behavior modification.

I'm not qualified to arbitrate. I do know that as our country continues to become more polarized around issues, advertisers creating future campaigns will need to navigate roads that are narrower, with deeper ditches on either side, and the decisions they make at each intersection more crucial. And to end -- continuing the metaphor -- it matters what brand of GPS you are using.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.

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