Slamming the lid on free expression

With its ban on a bathroom ad and its warnings about 'violent ads', the UK advertising watchdog is reinforcing the tyranny of the prudish minority.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Free Speech

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In an early episode of Seinfeld, the comedian muses on those absurd soft drink adverts in which people always seem ecstatic, dancing around carefree and in love. ‘I’m thinking, maybe I don’t put enough ice in mine’, he concludes. Soft drinks, detergents, hair products and skin lotions – even if ‘we’re worth it’ – rarely have the thrilling effect on users that they do on the people in the adverts.

In other words, there is a gap between the mundane real world and turned-up-to-11 world of advertising. The vast majority of viewers – including quite young children – understand this gap perfectly well. Yet, down the years, many a prude has been enraged that the portrayal of society or products in advertising gives misleading or dangerous impressions that will lead to the total breakdown of society and the warping of young minds. Unfortunately, as the responses to the UK Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) announcement of a rise in complaints about violence in advertising shows, this moral minority still gets a hearing.

The ASA is a watchdog set up by the advertising industry to police the rules laid down in advertising codes. It is holding a seminar today following its announcement that so far in 2007, it ‘has received 1748 complaints about 523 ads that depicted or alluded to violence compared with 1054 complaints about 254 ads in 2006’ (1).

In other words, this increase amounts to an average of just 3.34 complaints per ad perceived as violent. Furthermore, not all complaints have been upheld. As an ASA communications and policy assistant told me: ‘We can’t say that 523 ads were actually promoting violence, just that there were complaints made.’

Yet the few sensitive souls that do complain get taken very seriously indeed, generating histrionic newspaper headlines and outraged comments from politicians and bureaucrats about the ‘state of advertising’ and the harm it is doing to our children. Ed Mayo, chief executive of the National Consumer Council, told the Guardian: ‘If companies pay for adverts that make violent behaviour seem acceptable or, worse, funny or cool, then they are directly sponsoring bruises, tears and hurt in the playground and homes of Britain’s children.’ According to Mayo, the issue is particularly pressing now that children ‘spend more time watching TV than they spend in school’ (2).

Maybe the kids Mayo knows are all bunking off school to watch TV, but there seems to be little evidence to support this outlandish claim. As a 2007 ChildWise Monitor report noted, there has been a gradual downward trend in children’s TV viewing, with children watching an average of 2.4 hours per day compared to three hours five years ago. A 2005 study by the University of Sheffield found that the average amount of time children engaged in screen use per day – including watching television and DVDs and playing video games – was two hours and six minutes. But even if Mayo was right about the amount of time children spend watching TV, the idea that companies are directly responsible for their knees being bruised and feelings being hurt displays very childish thinking.

It’s not just children that are deemed to be at risk. Adults, too, are said to be negatively affected by ads. A series of five TV ads for the furniture retailer MFI, for instance, have been judged as ‘shocking, offensive and disturbing’ and for being irresponsible in suggesting that arguing and shouting were ‘normal features of home life’ (3). The ads show different typical domestic arguments between various family members – a stroppy teenager slamming doors, a couple bickering about the visit of the mother-in-law, a wife shouting at and slapping her husband for leaving the toilet seat up. All turn out to be set within MFI showcase stores and end with a voiceover claiming that when your kitchen/bedroom/bathroom is measured, designed and installed by MFI ‘you’ll feel right at home’.

In a refreshing twist to the common formula of advertising making life appear sunnier, more easy-going and filled with more beautiful people than it normally is, the MFI ads stand out as original and humorous. Yet the toilet seat ad was banned by the ASA because it could be seen to ‘condone intimidation, domestic violence and aggression as an acceptable way to resolve issues’ (4).

These ads play on stereotypes and easily recognisable situations, which we have all experienced, and exaggerate them. Rather than glorifying domestic bickering, the commercials (which can be viewed on YouTube) actually make it look unnecessary. The twist in the end of the toilet ad, where an MFI salesperson tells the couple ‘Ah, I see you have found the soft close toilet seat’, makes arguing so intensely about such a trivial issue seem ridiculous – and easily resolvable, thanks to MFI. The message is that the couple should just chill out a bit and buy a MFI toilet seat which closes by itself.

Was the public really as offended, shocked and disturbed by the MFI ad campaign as the ASA believes? The five ads fuelled 217 complaints altogether. So what about the other millions of TV viewers who didn’t seem to mind? Why should such a tiny minority dictate what the rest of us get to see?

In fact, it is the apparent tyranny of the minority which rules when it comes to regulating ads; the ASA representative told me that 50 complaints is considered ‘a high number’. And the five ads which feature in the Guardian ‘five of the worst’ list of advertisements in 2007 have received between 217 complaints (for the MFI series) and just one (in the case of an online advert for Midway Games). The ASA is hardly being pursued by a mob of offended and damaged TV viewers.

As the ASA representative pointed out to me, these were not the five most complained about adverts, and most of them were actually from 2005 and 2006. ‘But’, she said, ‘they were good examples of unnecessary use of violence, especially the Midway Games ad’.

So even if an ad cannot be shown to directly lead to violence, or even to offend individuals, it is deemed to be valid to hold it up as an example of what images are inappropriate. An increasing number of ads are withdrawn in the name of protecting people not just from being physically assaulted (the idea that, as Ed Mayo put it, ‘violence breeds violence’), but from harming themselves – like the ban in 2006 of ‘junk food’ ads during children’s programming – and from being offended. One recent example of an advert being withdrawn as ‘offensive’ is when the British department store chain House of Fraser pulled a promotional poster after just one woman complained it was ‘racist’ (4).

Today’s culture of inoffensiveness has led to a pernicious clampdown on free expression, where very subjective complaints by a tiny minority can lead to censure. Groups like the ASA take easily offended minorities far too seriously – perhaps as cover for their own dubious sensibilities.

In the guise of a democratic spirit, ASA has invited delegates to today’s seminar ‘who have a personal or professional concern about the use of violent imagery in advertising to have their say’. The feedback at the seminar will be considered when judging future complaints about violent ads. But the fact that this self-selected group of moral guardians, or the tiny minority that complains about ads, can dictate what should or should not enter into the public sphere, is far from democratic.

We should take the lesson from the MFI ad and slam the lid on the oppressive regime of the prude and the easily offended – and the petty censorship conducted in their name.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said advertising is a free speech issue. Alex Hochuli warned of the dangers of the tyranny of the individual. Patrick West found postmodern advertising a turn-off. Wendy Earl argued that the power of the media to control kids has been exaggerated. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) ‘ASA responds to rise in complaints about violence in advertising’, Press release issued by ASA on 19 November 2007

(2) Knives, whips and a slap in the face: how complaints to the ad watchdog doubled, Guardian, 19 November 2007

(3) ASA bans MFI toilet seat ad, Guardian,26 September 2007

(4) ASA bans MFI toilet seat ad, Guardian,26 September 2007

(5) See Tyranny of the individual, by Alex Hochuli

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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