The Big Lie – the complete book online - 27 Morality

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Chapter 27

Matters of Taste

Morality

If we were to say that “bad taste” is indefensible, then we would have no Impressionist painting, no jazz music, no modern art, nor hundreds of things now deemed worthy of cultural admiration.

Michael Winner, director of the films Death Wish, Death Wish 2, and Death Wish 3

Regulatory authorities look at what goes into an advertisement, while any good “creative” focuses on what impression is taken out of it. So, the J. Walter Thompson account team was nonplussed when one of its sacrificial stalking-horses for the 1983 Winston poster campaign was approved by the innocents of the Advertising Standards Authority without demur. The picture of a garden gnome standing by a rooster carried the headline “We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s a little man with a big red cock”. (The agency chickened out.)

The advertising industry has always tried to ward off the imposition of government censorship by regulating itself, whilst reserving the right to challenge the rules continually. Almost all radio and television commercials have to be vetted in advance by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre, funded by the Independent Television Commission. For other media, the ASA takes a more passive role; generally it will review an advertisement only when it judges that it has caused “wide-spread” offence. Thus, while the ITC can prevent the appearance of offending commercials, the harshest recourse of the ASA is to insist that publication not be repeated. Given the length of its procedures and the timing of production processes, this means that the offending poster or press advertisement may remain on view for weeks or months – which is often the intended length of the campaign in any case. The ITC also may react to public complaints by proscribing the appearance of a television commercial before 9 p.m., on the assumption that small children will therefore not see it. The British Board of Film Classification certifies cinema commercials for exposure with appropriate films.

These organisations deny that they are moral arbiters. Their role, as they see it, is to strike a balance between commercial freedom and what the public consider to be offensive, without determining what public taste should be. This is, of course, a deception. In determining their judgements the censors, like everyone else, have to rely on an inner moral compass. However, in their political role as defenders of the probity of the advertising industry, they must also be seen to react to overtly expressed public concerns.

It’s a difficult job. For example, one of the judgements the people who work for the regulatory bodies arrogate to themselves is deciding what is funny. On the basis of a single complaint the ASA banned an advertisement by a paper-sack manufacturer in Farming News because it contained a photograph of a smiling woman wearing a bikini. At the same time it considered another complaint about an advertisement appearing in the North Devon Journal. This featured several photographs of men in jockstraps with the headline: “Climax! Coming Soon! Kaos opens its door for a night of ladies-only safe sex”. The ASA found this smutty innuendo unobjectionable on the grounds that it was “humorous”.

Sometimes it appears that advertisements are written by a gang of giggling schoolboys obsessed with naughty words. In 1997 some bright spark worked out that the acronym for the retail clothing chain French Connection UK is FCUK.1 This gave rise to posters emblazoned “FCUK Advertising” and “FCUK Christmas”. The ASA found these slogans offensive, but reckoned they would be okay so long as a comma were inserted; it couldn’t do anything about the thousands of T-shirts sold. The estimated value of the PR coverage which the chain received was £4 million, ten times its annual advertising expenditure. The company nearly doubled its profits in the first half of 1999, a rise attributed by its founder, Stephen Marks, almost exclusively to its advertising. Campaign magazine chose French Connection as its advertiser of the year for 1999, which prompted this response from David Abbott, a highly respected creative director and founder of Britain’s now largest agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO :

 

Fcuk me, what a brilliant choice for advertiser of the year. Fcuking great idea to put fcuking four-letter words on fcuking big posters, where every fcuking eight-year-old can see them. What a fcuking cool way to get up the noses of those fcuking parents and teacher tossers who are trying to bring their kids up as fcuking goody-goodies. That’s the way to sell a youth brand, though haven’t I seen it fcuking before on the lav walls? Anyhow, great to see the industry magazine behaving in such a fcuking great way – makes me fcuking nostalgic, it does.

 

An advertisement publicising a mid-1990s art exhibition called The Naked Shit Pictures by the ageing mavericks Gilbert and George featured a montage entitled Bum Holes, which exposed the eponymous assholes to camera. The ASA rejected complaints, explaining: “The advertisers believed that nudity, a recurrent theme in artistic expression throughout the history of art, was not generally thought offensive”. Soon afterwards the ASA denounced the Benetton poster of a newly born baby as “obscene”.

Menstruation is a powerful male taboo in many cultures; in Britain it’s the women who find it embarrassing. It was not until the mid-1990s that television viewers were permitted to see a demonstration of sanitary towel function. When agony aunt Clare Rayner explained the special absorbency of Vespré Silhouettes Plus, she provoked 300 complaints, mostly from older women, and the ITC decreed “not in front of the children”. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, Daniel J. Boorstin calls such squeamishness “The New Expurgation . . . aimed less to expunge offensive doctrine than to hide offensive facts of life”.

The British tradition of sexual innuendo flourishes in advertising, as copywriters engage in a continual game of cat-and-mouse to elude the veto of monitors. A 1997 poster for Jacob’s king-size Club chocolate bar which promised to give men “an extra one-and-a-half inches in their lunch-box department” was banned by the ASA. However, when a 1996 poster for UltraBra showed a semi-dressed woman in a provocative pose with the headline “Who says a woman can’t get pleasure out of something soft?”, the ASA believed that most people would think the reference was to the softness of the brassiere she was wearing.

British advertisers will often calculatingly exploit the delay in the ASA adjudication process. A 1995 poster campaign for the travel firm Club 18-30 won an award at the Design and Art Direction Awards (DADA) competition, the advertising world’s equivalent of the Oscars, for its crude promises of lewd rewards. One poster transliterated the popular holiday song “Viva España” as “Beaver España”, a reference to female pudenda; another was headlined “The summer of 69”. This campaign was produced by Saatchi & Saatchi, a global agency which does not usually handle advertisers with small budgets. The account manager explained, “Big agencies sometimes take on small accounts on the basis of doing what we would call “breakthrough” advertising – stuff that gets not only them noticed but that gets us noticed too”. Both agency and client were well aware that their work could be found indecent and in contravention of ASA guidelines. They also knew that the ASA would not review these ads until it had received a considerable body of complaints. And the campaign would not attract controversial notice in the London-rooted national press until it appeared under its nose, and so the poster campaign was scheduled to begin in the provinces and did not reach London until near its end. After booking some 400 complaints, the ASA duly ruled against it. The ban took effect on the day the last poster contract expired, at the end of the holiday booking season.

Some of the most notorious advertisements are produced by institutions using easy shock effects to pursue good intentions. To promote Easter 1999, a conclave of marketing-minded clerics called the Churches Advertising Network compared the image of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara to Jesus, with the slogan, “Meek, Mild. As if. Discover the real Jesus. April 4”. A sponsoring vicar from the diocese of Ely, admitted, “There is a danger that people will see the poster and expect something radical from their local church, which might not be what they will actually get. We cannot control the product. Christianity is not a tin of beans”. He failed to draw the conclusion that it should therefore perhaps not be sold like a tin of beans, but others did. Harry Greenway, a former Tory MP active in the Conservative Christian Fellowship condemned it as “grossly sacrilegious”, and suggested that “those who are in any way responsible should be excommunicated”.

In 1995 the British Safety Council managed to offend taboos against both religious and sexual matters with a poster depicting the Pope wearing a hard hat with the headline, “Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom”. It was dropped after protests. Undeterred, in its campaign the next year, the Council took on royalists by showing a fresh-faced Prince Charles kissing his blushing bride, Diana, with the headline, “Appearances can be deceptive . . . use a Johnny Condom”. This was after the revelation of Diana’s indiscretions, but shortly before the emotional hysteria aroused by her death, fortunately for the members of the Council, who might otherwise have been wheeled away in tumbrils.

In 1998 three posters appeared which appeared to exploit racial prejudice. For example, over the headline “Born to be agile”, a brand of sports footwear paired a black man jumping at a basketball hoop with an orang-utan stretching for a tree branch. These primitive advertisements provoked little attention – only thirty complaints, including those from racial organisations, were received by the ASA – until it was revealed that the brand names were bogus; the advertiser was the Commission for Racial Equality, which had deemed it appropriate to spend £250,000 of public money to reinforce racial stereotypes. The campaign was in two stages – the “teaser” posters were later pasted over with the logo of the CRE and the message: “What was worse? This ad, or your failure to complain?” The breathtakingly naive belief that racial prejudices could be moderated by escalation into the public arena was apparently born of desperation. “We have been hitting our heads against a brick wall when trying to get British society to pay attention”, said chairman Sir Herman Ouseley. One who took notice was Tory MP Sir Teddy Taylor, who said the Commission should be closed. Another condemnation of this twisted logic came from the ASA, which awarded the CRE the dubious distinction of becoming the first non-tobacco advertiser forced to have its material vetted in advance.

Commercials are often criticised for touching upon themes which are routine in the dramatic programmes with which they appear. In a 1995 Pepe jeans cinema commercial a teenage suicide filmed his own death, glamorising the act as a rebellion against materialistic values with the suicide note, “I used to be a target market”. A spokesman for the company argued, “The people we are trying to target are nihilistic, narcissistic and hedonistic – unlike those who might be offended by the ad”. Tim Delaney, the creative director of the agency responsible for the commercial, complained, “You cannot exhibit a film like Natural Born Killers and then not put this out”.

At the end of the 1990s a wave of commercials for products ingested by young people – soft drinks and ice-creams – manipulated sinister images to imply the effects of taking drugs. Thumping music, acid colours, and quick cuts between unrelated images, techniques lifted from the druggy film Trainspotting, conveyed the message that narcotics are cool to streetwise teenagers, though not to the regulatory bodies. The ASA did respond, however, to an obvious verbal message by criticising an advertisement for a snowboarding computer game which used drug jargon: “Powder: My body yells, aches for powder: I need the rush, the buzz, I have to get higher than the last time”.

Fashion designer Calvin Klein built a brand empire on sexual images of vulnerable youngsters, starting in 1980 with the 15-year-old movie star Brooke Shields. In 1993 he draped the emaciated model Kate Moss over a sofa, an image of full-frontal pre-pubescent nudity to advertise his Obsession fragrance. In 1995 he launched a poster and fashion magazine campaign in America showing young male and female models with stoned, sensuous expressions, sprawling partly undressed in vulnerable poses, legs splayed, knickers showing, crotch thrust forward. On television a male stripling stood before camera while a man’s voice-over intoned chat-up lines: “How old are you? . . . That’s a nice body. You work out? I can tell”. When Klein was accused by the American Family Association of promoting child pornography and NBC television refused to carry the commercials, sales at the fashionable Bloomingdale’s department store allegedly rocketed. But it was not just moral activists who expressed concern. The US Justice Department ordered the FBI to investigate a possible violation of Federal decency laws. The models were of uncertain age; he might be charged with sexual exploitation of minors. Mr Klein claimed artistic immunity; his advertising had been “misunderstood”. Nevertheless, faced with the prospect of a stiff gaol sentence, he withdrew it. The publicity his brand had received – reinforcing its degenerate, subversive image – was, of course, phenomenal.

 

If we believe advertising debases the human values which our society treasures, is there a case for demanding good taste in advertising? The first line of defence for advertising agencies is that they are simply doing their job well for their clients. They have to speak the language and express the feelings of real people, not some politically correct idealisation of how people should behave. In their highly competitive environment few agencies can afford social scruples. This argument simply passes the responsibility from servant to paymaster.

Another defence is that if advertisements are acceptable to the target market, the rest of society has no reason to complain. The rebuttal of this is twofold: first, in a multicultural democracy no single group has the right to set standards of public morality, and secondly, although publication in special-interest media may diminish the problem, few media are so focused that they don’t have significant overspill outside the intended target group, which may well include children.

Advertising agencies will also claim that the manner in which a sentiment is expressed makes all the difference. Crudity and sexist language are acceptable, they say, if presented with subtlety, wit, irony, and warmth. Thus, the cartoon nymphet on the 1999 Virgin Cola poster who says “Open your mouth, I’m coming” is just good fun because she’s not real. Subtlety, wit, irony, and warmth, in any case, are highly judgemental qualities. A joke about women, Jews, Irishmen, or blacks is perceived differently if you are a woman, Jewish, Irish, or black.

The ultimate excuse is that advertisers do not impose new patterns of behaviour; they only reflect what is already acceptable. This is sophistry. Advertising’s self-appointed role is to guide our aspirations. For dramatic effect advertising seeks out and promotes exceptional activities at or beyond the margins of social acceptability, presenting them as normative behaviour. Though it is not a root cause of social dysfunction, British advertising at the extremes can fairly be charged with aiding and abetting antisocial activities such as indecent language, obscenity, moral turpitude, youthful promiscuity, sacrilege, cruelty to animals, dangerous behaviour, sedition, racism, sexism and xenophobia, fraud, theft, pimping, runaway children, teenage suicide, violence as a means of resolving conflict, drug-taking, paedophilia, and general public indelicacy.

Of course, the same could be said of books, newspapers, magazines, films, and television programmes, which commonly treat subjects, show images, and use language denied to advertisers. And, like advertisers, they do it for commercial gain. Yet there are at least three important distinctions. With information and entertainment media, there is always an element of self-selection. One knows more or less what to expect. But we don’t select advertisements; they are thrust upon us. Secondly, while art and entertainment are loosely regulated in our society, companies which produce goods and services are subject to close control, legally enforced, in matters of health, product quality, employee relations, and trade descriptions. If they fail in these responsibilities they can be sued for redress. We therefore expect these organisations also to accept civic responsibilities – indeed, most corporations boast of them. Their advertising messages thus carry the implied weight of civil sanction. Just as we expect that Tesco sausages are safe to eat, and really do contain meat, so we assume that the attitudes expressed by a recognised company in reputable media have also met with civic approval. Finally, and crucially, though entertainment media provide powerful role models, we are not consciously exhorted to imitate the behaviour of pop stars and characters in soap operas. Such influences are incidental, while the purpose of advertising is emulation. With the declining influence of church, school, and family in shaping public morality, advertisements are our daily sermons.

 

The moral consensus evolves continually; the past is a foreign culture. The arrogance of imposing the individual taste of self-appointed monitors is obvious, but the complaint system and the dialectics of the review procedures are equally undemocratic. The processing of individual complaints is an acceptable procedure for the purposes for which it was designed: the expression of a personal grievance, say, about police mis-conduct. It is not a reliable barometer of commonly held public opinion. In 1998 the BACC authorised 24,100 different television commercials and, according to the ASA, 25 million different advertisements appeared in the UK press and other media. In 1997 the Henley Centre estimated that, on average, each British adult views 52,000 commercials, posters, and press advertisements per year. The number of people in Britain aged 15 or older is 47.3 million. That works out to a total of almost 2.5 billion adult advertising impressions. In this context, the number of complaints received by the self-regulatory bodies is infinitesimally small. The single most criticised poster of 1998 showed a lugubrious Jersey cow saying, “When I’m a burger, I want to be washed down with Irn-Bru”. It attracted 589 complaints to the ASA. The most controversial television commercial that year was for Levi’s jeans; 519 people contacted the ITC to lament the death of Kevin the hamster. In 1998 the ASA received its highest total of complaints: 12,217. That’s 0.000005 per cent of total viewer/reader advertising impressions. Assuming the unlikely, that nobody claimed more than once, for every individual who was offended by one of the 52,000 advertisements they saw throughout the year, about four million people were not bothered, or were insufficiently exercised to voice a protest.

The regulatory bodies are frequently exploited as a trampoline to heighten the views of any special interest group – animal lovers, religious faiths, or competitive advertisers – which can mobilise even a few dozen apparently independent complaints. The reaction of the regulatory bodies depends on how well organised the opposition is. Over the past decades the ASA has agreed with many complaints about allegedly sexist portrayals of women. However, in 1998, when Lee Jeans showed a provocative poster of a man’s vulnerable naked bottom with a woman’s stiletto heel poised above it, the ASA did not ban it. On the basis of its past policy decisions it is inconceivable that it would not have done so had the sexual roles been reversed.

What about the “silent majority” who let other people complain for them? First, it’s not a majority. In a 1996 survey by the ASA only a quarter of respondents claimed to have seen any misleading or offensive advertising over the previous year. About a third claimed they “sometimes felt offended by” by press advertisements or posters, although just 2 per cent said they had complained. (This is an overestimate, typical of test respondent declarations of action or intent. As indicated above, total annual complaints received by the ASA have never exceeded 0.03 per cent of the adult population.)

Clearly, inertia conceals a great deal of discontent. The problem is not that there is no consensus of taste, but simply that no mechanism exists for constantly sampling it. Instead of inventing magisterial decrees of conduct and reacting to a complaint system which invites manipulation, the regulatory bodies should actively and continually monitor public opinion to guide their decisions.

In 1998 the ASA uncharacteristically took a tentative step in this direction. It asked a large sample of the public what it thought about a number of controversial advertisements. Bad language offended over 80 per cent. Sixty per cent objected to the French Connection’s use of FCUK and F**K. Even mild worlds like “pillock”, “git”, “bloody” and “damn” were offensive to a majority. More than 70 per cent objected to the portrayal of women as sex objects, many being disturbed by a Katherine Hamnett fashion advertisement which included a glimpse of pubic hair. Half of the sample objected to the druggy imagery in the poster for the snowboarding computer game. Only 10 per cent were opposed to showing homosexuals or lesbians. However, two-thirds of the sample also objected to conventional advertising hyperbole: the portrayal of women as always slim and attractive. Clearly there’s a lot to learn about the shifting tides of public taste, and research methodology needs to distinguish between general dissatisfaction with materialistic values and active indignation aroused by offending public morality. Nevertheless, even from this raw experiment, specific lessons could be drawn to guide the decisions of regulatory bodies. Regular dipstick studies on large representative samples would provide reasonable justification for their decisions.

The adjudication process employed by the regulatory authorities is another trap. The monitors focus on literal verbal meaning; gratuitous images fraught with messages easily glide past them. Their deliberations often degenerate into semantic gymnastics, having little relation to the impact of the message on the man in the street. The legally trained US President Bill Clinton defended himself in his impeachment hearings by expounding on the precise meanings of the present tense and of the words “alone”, “cause”, and, notoriously, “sex”. In real life, as opposed to the Inns of Court, people work around the limitations of language by tacitly agreeing on how to use it. As Stephen Pinker, the author of How the Mind Works, puts it:

 

The sketchiness of language gives the listener considerable leeway in pinning an interpretation to an utterance. That is fine when the inter-locutors are co-operative but not when they are adversaries and the interpretation can send someone to gaol. The law requires language to do something for which it is badly designed: to leave nothing to the imagination. Lawmakers and lawyers do their best to co-opt language for this unnatural job. But at some point we have to fall back on the principle of co-operation and judge the truthfulness of a statement by what a co-operative speaker would expect his listeners to infer.

 

The same sensible operating principle can be extended to the meaning of visual images. What always matters in advertising is not the intention of the advertiser, but the effect upon the consumer. Effective advertising is often unconventional, disturbing, and vulgar, particularly to those at whom it is not aimed. But surly teenagers, too, have their codes of morality, shielded from outsiders, and advertisers frequently misread the signs. And even when appropriate amongst its own target group, anti-social advertising has effects in a wider realm. A gross 1999 Virgin Airlines newspaper advertisement showing alluring portraits of eight women and suggesting that, apart from “your wife”, you might want to consider using a free companion ticket for “your best friend’s wife”, or assorted pick-ups such as “the florist with nice tulips” or “the French waitress (minus hairy armpits)”, offended on many levels, and might easily create distaste for any Virgin enterprise. The game is not worth the candle if a public presentation degrades the reputation of the sponsoring organisation, as Time Warner, the world’s largest media group, decided when it sold off its highly profitable but controversial record subsidiary specialising in rap artists because of its crude violent and sex trash output. Corporate citizens are not exempt from the responsibilities of the social contract. Over the long term, wilful offence of public morality can only debase those who practise it. If value can be added to a brand, it can also be subtracted.

1 Trevor Beattie, creative director of the advertising agency TBWA GGT Simons Palmer, has been publicly credited with this insight.