Commercial brake

You need a PhD in gender studies to understand Ofcom’s decisions to ban – or not ban - adverts.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

Since its launch at the end of 2003, the ‘unified regulator’ the Office of Communications (Ofcom) has been happily banning advertisements (1).

It takes only a single member of the public to complain about an ad, for a ban to be considered. The largest number of complaints that has prompted a response from Ofcom to date is 797 – very high only in comparison to the others (2).

Ofcom decided to ban a TV ad for the Renault Megane 225 car, showing people shaking uncontrollably as the car drives past them, because a mere 10 viewers complained that the ad could be construed as mocking those who suffer from disorders that cause body tremors. It banned a radio ad that punned on the double meaning of the word ‘faggots’ (as in the meat product and homosexuals), because it concurred with three listeners that this ‘highly derogatory term’ is ‘capable of causing serious offence’. It decided to ban a radio ad for a college open day, because a single listener complained about the fact that the ad referred to supermarket checkout staff as ‘morons’ (3).

Supposedly a sensitive, ‘light-touch’ regulator, Ofcom is actually at the forefront of a new form of censorship that dresses itself up in ethical credentials, using the promotion of diversity as a cloak behind which it can restrict free speech (see ‘Communication ethics’ and the new censorship, by Sandy Starr).

Ofcom inherited the responsibility for regulating ads from its predecessors the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority – and this responsibility will be handed over to the Advertising Standards Authority in November 2004, although Ofcom will still retain a powerful say in the relevant regulatory codes (4). But regardless of who regulates ads in future, Ofcom’s activities paint a worrying picture of the changing face of media regulation.

You don’t have to offend a specific minority in order for Ofcom to find your ad offensive – just going against the prevailing orthodoxy is sufficient. Take the recent banning of a TV ad for the Freelander Sport landrover, which showed a woman taking a gun from a drawer and using it as a starting pistol as a man drives away. Ofcom argued that ‘given regular coverage of high-profile shooting incidents and public concern about the wider social impact of the so-called gun culture, the glamorisation and normalisation of guns, even indirectly, is simply offensive to many people’. Furthermore, the ad’s ‘domestic setting, together with the gun simply lying in a drawer, normalised the ownership of guns’.

The capital offence for which the ad was ultimately banned was that it ‘made light of genuine public concern about gun culture’. It is a sign of an unfree society when certain things simply cannot be ‘made light of’ (5).

Conversely, Ofcom seems happy for ads that reinforce the prevailing orthodoxy to be as offensive as they like. Hard-hitting ads commissioned by the authorities to drive home a moral point always seem to escape censure. The Department for Transport’s shocking TV ad showing a surreal road accident in a pub, with a girl being run down by an invisible car and the man ogling her left bruised and bloodied, was complained about to Ofcom but was not banned. According to Ofcom, ‘the powerful imagery does have a serious and legitimate purpose’, and ‘the majority of viewers accept the use of upsetting imagery as legitimate in contexts such as road safety, whereas they would not find the same images acceptable in ordinary advertising’.

But surely it is Ofcom, not the public at large, that believes ‘upsetting imagery’ to be ‘legitimate in contexts such as road safety’ – and that imperiously imagines that it can impose this view upon the rest of us (6).

Complaints were also submitted to Ofcom about the British Heart Foundation’s nauseating anti-smoking TV ads, which depict the fat that can clog up arteries dripping from cigarettes. Ofcom explained that ‘in assessing such advertisements it’s important to note the aims of the campaign and the reasoning behind the approach’, and argued that ‘although it was clear that some viewers had found it objectionable, the importance of the message outweighed this’ (7). In other words, as long as advertisers are causing disgust and outrage for a government-approved moral purpose, Ofcom will turn a blind eye.

Perhaps the area in which Ofcom’s regulation of ads has received the greatest attention is food, with a number of politicians and commentators calling for a ban on the advertising of junk food to children. After kicking this idea around for a few months, Ofcom reluctantly concluded that ‘there is insufficient evidence to determine the relative size of the effect of TV advertising on children’s food choice’, but noted that ‘this does not however mean that the indirect effects of television advertising are negligible’ (8). This is Ofcomspeak for ‘we can’t legitimately blame advertising for childhood obesity, but people are right to be concerned about it anyway’.

Ofcom has also called for ‘advertisements directed at young children to be less attractive, for example by avoiding the use of cartoon characters’. It didn’t seem to occur to the regulator that if ads make products appear less attractive then the entire purpose of advertising is defeated. A similar shortsightedness is apparent in the decision to ban a TV ad for Heineken beer, in response to a single complaint, because the ad claimed that an increase in the percentage of alcohol in Heineken ‘makes our beer better’. Ofcom complained that ‘the central message of the advertisement was that the new higher alcoholic strength made the beer better’, and that ‘there was therefore undue emphasis given to the alcohol strength of the product’ (9). Presumably Ofcom believes that alcoholic beverages are bought solely on the basis of their delicious tastes.

Children figure large in Ofcom’s justifications for censorship – for example, after eight viewers complained that their children were frightened by a TV ad for windscreen glass, which showed a crack in a car windscreen detaching itself from the car and pursuing the driver. Ofcom ‘acknowledged that it is sometimes difficult to predict what images might frighten the young’, but nonetheless decided that a fateful aggregate of ‘the menacing crack, the fear on the man’s face, and the dramatic background music together with the final image of the cracking hands had caused some very young children to be fearful’ (10).

Ofcom’s justifications for not banning certain ads can be equally convoluted and ridiculous. For instance, 40 viewers complained about a TV ad for a Mini car that showed a naked, middle-aged couple in a car slapping a naked pedestrian with a dead fish, and five of these complainants thought it particularly inappropriate that these ads were shown during a drama about a violent assault on a teenager. But Ofcom, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that ‘while…there was no obvious justification in the advertisement for the slap, we believe it was sufficiently ridiculous and improbable to be copied’ (11). This po-faced explanation highlights the irrationality of contemporary media regulation.

Prurience is often a feature of Ofcom’s explanations, confirming the old adage that it’s the censor who really has the dirty mind. When viewers complained about a TV ad in which a scantily clad woman appeared to offer sexual favours in return for a Cornetto ice cream, Ofcom decided that this was not tantamount to sanctioning prostitution, because ‘the woman using her body to get what she wanted…was seen to be in full control of her actions and of the likely outcome of them’. When viewers complained about a TV ad for Virgin Mobile, in which a toilet attendant is shown helping a man to urinate, Ofcom declared that ‘the action was portrayed as expected, consensual and did not carry with it any sexual overtones’ (12).

Ofcom’s perverse logic is illustrated by two ads that were complained about for similar reasons, one of which was banned, one of which was not. A TV ad for the soft drink Irn-Bru that elicited 17 complaints, and a Walls Cornetto ad that elicited 12 complaints, each featured women who – it was implied – had previously been men. Ofcom acknowledged that in the Irn-Bru ad, ‘the mother was shown as a strong character and not ashamed of her transsexuality’, but argued that ‘the end scene with the woman shaving could be seen as directly mocking transsexual women and was capable of causing offence by strongly reinforcing negative stereotypes’. In the Walls Cornetto ad, however, Ofcom argued that ‘the woman was portrayed positively as a strong and beautiful character’ who ‘used her influence to get what she wanted’, which is not ‘a negative characteristic attributable particularly to transsexuals, or indeed women, but as an example of everyday negotiation between couples’ (13).

It is difficult to see what an advertiser hoping to stay on the right side of Ofcom can usefully learn from these rulings, other than that you now need a PhD in gender studies before you can make an acceptable ad.

Tellingly, in the instance of the ad that has elicited the highest number of complaints on Ofcom’s watch, there was no need for a ban. The offending ad – a TV spot for Mr Kipling mince pies, in which Mr Kipling stages a nativity play by having a woman give birth for real onstage – was quickly withdrawn by the advertiser Saatchi & Saatchi, when it became evident that graphic scenes of childbirth are not the most effective way of selling exceedingly good cakes. Ofcom praised Saatchi & Saatchi’s ‘responsible decision’, but surely this was just good business sense? (14)

Advertisers should be free to hawk their wares however they wish, to whomever they wish. As the case of Mr Kipling illustrates, there are already good commercial reasons to be mindful of the disposition of prospective customers. There is no reason why advertisers should be accountable to society’s most sensitive souls, or to the morality peddled by the government and regulators of the day.

We don’t need Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority, or anyone else protecting our sensibilities and those of our children. We should be free to look after our own sensibilities, using the humble ‘off’ switch on our TVs and radios.

Read on:

‘Communication ethics’ and the new censorship, by Sandy Starr

Obesity and gross insults, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) The new organisational framework (.pdf 135 KB), A New Future for Communications, Department of Trade and Industry and Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 12 December 2000, p77

(2) See Advertising Complaints Bulletin 5 (.pdf 167 KB), Office of Communications, 16 March 2004, p8

(3) See Advertising Complaints Bulletin 15 (.pdf 224 KB), Office of Communications, 2 August 2004, p8; Advertising Complaints Bulletin 13 (.pdf 99.8 KB), Office of Communications, 5 July 2004, p10; Advertising Complaints Bulletin 4 (.pdf 84KB)), Office of Communications, 2 March 2004, p6

(4) See Ofcom simplifies advertising regulation with ‘one-stop-shop’ for consumer complaints, Ofcom, 17 May 2004; Advertising Standards Authority welcomes one stop shop decision, Advertising Standards Authority, 17 May 2004; Advertising gets regulatory shakeup, Stephen Brook, Guardian, 16 July 2004

(5) Advertising Complaints Bulletin 17 (.pdf 177 KB), Office of Communications, 31 August 2004, p5-6

(6) Advertising Complaints Bulletin 16 (.pdf 161 KB), Office of Communications, 16 August 2004, p6

(7) Advertising Complaints Bulletin 3 (.pdf 126 KB), Office of Communications, 17 February 2004, p9

(8) Childhood Obesity – Food Advertising in Context: Children’s Food Choices, Parents’ Understanding and Influence, and the Role of Food Promotion (.pdf 1.21 MB), Office of Communications, 22 July 2004, p176

(9) Ofcom research sets food advertising to children in context, Ofcom, 22 July 2004; Advertising Complaints Bulletin 15 (.pdf 224 KB), Office of Communications, 2 August 2004, p6-7

(10) Advertising Complaints Bulletin 6 (.pdf 129 KB), Office of Communications, 30 March 2004, p3

(11) Advertising Complaints Bulletin 4 (.pdf 84KB)), Office of Communications, 2 March 2004, p7

(12) Advertising Complaints Bulletin 10 (.pdf 85.7 KB), Office of Communications, 24 May 2004, p3; Advertising Complaints Bulletin 16 (.pdf 161 KB), Office of Communications, 16 August 2004, p3

(13) Advertising Complaints Bulletin 14 (.pdf 78.9 KB), Office of Communications, 19 July 2004, p6, 8

(14) Advertising Complaints Bulletin 5 (.pdf 167 KB), Office of Communications, 16 March 2004, p9

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Topics Politics


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