12/20/2011 01:34 EST | Updated 02/19/2012 05:12 EST

Volkswagen Canada pulls ad with pregnant woman after complaints it's insensitive

TORONTO - Volkswagen Canada has pulled a television ad featuring two men so distracted by a car that they ignore a woman in labour after complaints it was insensitive.

The ad shows a man driving his pregnant wife to the hospital then leaving her sitting in the car while he and a paramedic admire the features of his Volkswagen Passat.

Volkswagen Canada spokesman Thomas Tetzlaff said Tuesday the company decided to pull the ad earlier this month after a small number of complaints from customers who felt the spot portrayed pregnant women in a bad light.

"I don't know if they used the word sexist but the gist of the complaint was that we weren't very fair to the pain and suffering that goes along with childbirth," Tetzlaff said.

"Upon second thought we thought, holy cow, that certainly wasn't the intent, but if anybody construes that way, we should pull it."

Katie Griffin, the actress who portrayed the pregnant woman in the ad, said she was "absolutely stunned" that it was pulled.

While she wasn't pregnant when the ad was shot, she had just given birth three months earlier.

"I was not offended at all by the spot," Griffin said in an email, adding she found it funny and was struggling to understand how people could deem it offensive to women.

"The whole process of labour, for me anyway, was this crazy, intense, roller-coaster ride — a sense of humour was my saving grace."

If she was really looking to find some reason for someone to be offended, she added, it's possible men could be the ones to feel slighted by the depiction of a husband "so scatter-brained, losing focus of the task at hand," she added.

"But, even that would be outrageous."

Kenneth Wong, a marketing professor at Queen's University, agreed the ad wasn't particularly offensive, but said that in the age of social media, that isn't really the point.

"Historically, if only one person was sending you a letter you wouldn't worry about that," Wong said.

"But now, because of social media, it starts to take a life of its own."

And while there is no particular rule that makes pregnancy taboo or off-limits, he added, in a connected world, companies are even more exposed to the reality that if somebody can take offence with something, they probably will.

Volkswagen was right to pull the ad if they felt it would anger customers, said Wong, because pregnancy is something that cuts across all demographics.

"Women have often found certain beer ads offensive and beer companies' behind-closed-doors response has been: 'When you're drinking beer, I'll worry what you think of my ads,'" Wong said.

"It gets a little bit different when you're talking about something that runs across demographic areas, you can't run the risk that you're offending a true customer."

The website Art Threat took credit for the decision, saying the ads were pulled after it published an article criticizing the spot.

But Volkswagen said the decision was made a week before that article was published, and it was in response to the concerns of its customers.