ASA and Ofcom: you’re not worth it
We don’t need quangos to protect us from ‘misleading’ L’Oreal adverts or bad soap-opera storylines.
Thank god that we, the people of the UK, have these brave but very, very wise men and women holed up in state-backed organisations to look over us. Just imagine for a moment where we would be if the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) or, perish the thought, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) ceased to exist. Not only would British public life be a couple of acronyms lighter, we would almost certainly be shaking, upset and very probably ill.
Which is rubbish, right? Yet this does actually seem to be the view taken by UK officialdom. As far as it’s concerned, without ASA to shield our eyes from misleading or offensive adverts, without Ofcom to keep broadcasters on message, we would be left defenceless and incapable before the power of salesmen and, er, scriptwriters.
Two recent judgements write large this condescension-rich, censor-happy role. The first of which does ostensibly look like a victory of sorts. BBC soap opera EastEnders, having prompted an Ofcom investigation following a storyline in which a bereaved mother swapped her dead baby for the very-much alive baby of a neighbour, was cleared of breaching broadcasting regulations. Despite thousands of complaints, Ofcom was adamant that the plotline would ‘not have exceeded’ viewers’ expectations and the scenes broadcast were ‘not unduly disturbing or graphic’. However, Ofcom did acknowledge the episode shown on New Year’s Eve was ‘clearly capable of causing offence’.
But what stands out about this is not the content of the judgement. No, it’s the fact that the judgement exists at all.
Admittedly, even for the carnival of misery that is EastEnders, baby-swapping was a pretty unpleasant storyline, made all the worse for it being an implausible storyline. Still, while audience members may not have liked it – as much for dramatic reasons as for the perceived exploitation of sudden infant death syndrome – was there really any need for the quango-fied arm of the state to assess it? This was, after all, a piece of drama, a typical element of the cruel, fictional universe of what is widely known to be a Kray-icatured, ultra miserable soap opera.
But with Ofcom involved, it became something else. A soap-opera script became an appropriate object for state assessment and criticism. Hence you had the bizarre spectacle of Ofcom blathering on like some English A-level student, urging viewers to take into account fictional factors in the baby-abductor’s fictional background: ‘These included: her losing the daughter she had been forced to give up for adoption at 14, her desperation to have a baby and the tragedy she had experienced when she had miscarried, and the recent revelation of sexual abuse by her father.’
Effectively then, you had a statutory body tasked with assessing the dramatic merits of a soap opera. As absurd as that sounds, that is exactly what Ofcom was doing. It was acting as a state-sponsored TV critic and, as such, acting with all the powers to censure and reprimand that that role entails. And why? Because clearly it assumes that we’re incapable of making such judgements – about character, about plot, about whether or not to turn the telly off – by ourselves, certainly not without undergoing some sort of over-offended meltdown.
If Ofcom’s role as Commissar for TV Criticism reads like an over-the-top parody of the Eastern bloc, then ASA’s decision to ban two make-up ads for being ‘misleading’ about the extent to which cosmetics can transform your appearance is just plain surreal. Still, that’s what ASA did to L’Oreal’s magazine adverts featuring actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington. Apparently, the complainant, (il)Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, was outraged by images of fortysomething Roberts looking resplendent in ‘natural light’ and fortysomething Turlington looking every retouched inch the supermodel. ‘[The images are] not representative of the results the product could achieve’, Swinson cried, her face no doubt caked in ineffective slap.
ASA clearly agreed with the censor’s favourite liberal Swinson. ‘On the basis of the evidence we had received’, ASA announced, ‘we could not conclude that the ad image accurately illustrated what effect the product could achieve, and that the image had not been exaggerated by digital post-production techniques’. So, as a result of creating an ‘aspirational’ rather than realistic set of images, L’Oreal found their adverts banned. Swinson was triumphant, her ASA-aided censorship a victory for reality-based advertising. Or something. ‘This ban’, she shrilled, ‘sends a powerful message to advertisers – let’s get back to reality!’.
So in sum, while one state-backed body is deliberating over what drama is suitable for us, another state-encouraged, industry-backed one is deciding what adverts we should be exposed to. What must they think of us? Well, not much. We are clearly just too darn vulnerable, too credulous, too susceptible. We can’t cope with a piece of fiction, be it soap opera or soft-soaped images, without mistaking it for reality. We are judged to lack the necessary critical distance; we are deemed wanting the cranial space in which to reflect and perhaps even say something like ‘switch the channel, love, this is crap’, or even, ‘crikey, Julia looks about 18 in that one’. Instead, from the perspective of those who know far better than us mere dupes, we follow a storyline and act as if it’s actually happening to us; we see an image of beauty and try to become it.
Writing in support of the ban, and in praise of ASA, one commentator clearly agreed with such monkey-see, monkey-do logic. ‘When women, and increasingly men… see the gulf between the ideal and their own nasty reflections, what happens? Their hatred of their own selves grows – read the innumerable statistics – and vomit rises in the throat of yet more consumers.’ She’s right, you know. The gap between image and reality has frequently proved the catalyst for psycho-social collapse. Recall the famous creatine-and-benchpressing craze that followed the unveiling of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ in early-sixteenth century Florence. Remember the notorious spate of over-bathed, puckered, occasionally deceased ladies after John Everett Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ was shown at the Royal Academy in 1852. And who can forget the fashion for blue, distorted two-dimensionality when Picasso exhibited his ‘Nude Woman with Necklace’ in late 1960s Paris.
These outbreaks of image-inspired imitation never happened, of course. And that wasn’t because images employed in the service of adverts are more cunning and seductive today. It’s because there is no automatic, causal relation between a person seeing an idealised image of humanity, whether David or Julia, and that person attempting to become that image. That little thing known as our mind tends to intercede between external stimuli and our subsequent actions.
And it’s precisely that faith in our capacity to reason, to make judgements for ourselves, that ought to render redundant bodies that seek to act on our behalf like ASA or Ofcom. Their very existence demeans us. It suggests that we are incapable of coping with a crap storyline or a company trying to sell us stuff by making it, well, alluring. This, as is known by anyone who has ever switched channels or, er, not bought something despite its advertised promise of unblemished happiness, is simply not true.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.