Legal Sea Foods faces criticism for ‘cold fish’ ad mocking Hillary Clinton

The company's CEO says he thinks the reaction to the ad has been "bizarre."

Legal Sea Foods is well-known in the Boston area for its provocative advertisements. But the company stepped over the line for some people in a full-page ad poking fun at Hillary Clinton that ran in Monday’s print edition of The Boston Globe.

“We have a term for cold fish,” reads the caption underneath a portrait of Clinton sporting a thin-lipped smile. “Sushi.” The bottom of the ad also features a photo of Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz alongside “Berkowitz for President,” part of the company’s “#feeltheberk” campaign.

“Our ads tend to be a little bit provocative to begin with,” Berkowitz told Boston.com Monday. “This one was kind of interesting, because the blowback  — in terms of people saying there was misogyny, there was racism, there was sexism — it was such a bizarre, knee-jerk reaction.”

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The ad was developed by New York-based ad agency Devito/Verdi, whose controversial ads have turned Legal Sea Foods into an equal-opportunity offender for almost a decade. In 2008, the company offered a mock apology for advertisements comparing the appearance of MBTA employees to halibut.

In 2011, the company poked fun at conservationists and wildlife activists. “Save the crab,” began one spot. “Save it to show that every creature is sacred, no matter how small. Or, just save it so we can chop it up into tasty little crab cakes.”

In 2016 alone, the company has come under fire for advertisements featuring slogans about Mexicans (“If we build a wall on the border, who will eat our delicious fish tacos?”) and the LGBT community (“I support the gay community. That’s why we serve rainbow trout.”).

Three recent Legal Sea Foods ads.
Three recent Legal Sea Foods ads. —Legal Sea Foods

Most recently, the company ran an ad prior to the Republican National Convention poking fun at Donald Trump and comments that former candidate Marco Rubio made about Trump’s “small hands.”

“I can assure you, it’s not the size of your hands that are important,” the caption read, “But rather, the size of your shrimp.”

“There’s no political agenda behind these ads,” Berkowitz said. “They’re just meant to have a little fun.”

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The most recent ad did spark a blowback on Twitter, with some users tweeting that they would not be patronizing the restaurant anymore.

Others, however, said the opposite.

Berkowitz said he doesn’t buy the contention that “cold fish” is a sexist term.

“If you go online and look at the definition of cold fish, more often than not it’s used on men,” Berkowitz said, citing Mad Men’s Don Draper as a pop culture figure who is viewed as a cold fish. “I think it’s gender-neutral.”

Berkowitz said the company hasn’t decided whether they will continue the #feeltheberk campaign through the November election. He also stressed that the ads were meant to sell fish and start a conversation, not endorse any particular candidate.

“We ran the Hillary ad because we ran the Trump ad, and we had to create a level playing field,” Berkowitz said. “The last thing I would do is utilize our restaurants to promote a political agenda, one way or the other.”

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