Wanted for crimes against free expression

The Advertising Standards Authorities’ censuring of a movie poster exposes its elite disdain for the dumb masses.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has censured the makers of an Angelina Jolie action movie, Wanted, because the posters advertising the film ‘glamorised guns’. This willingness of our moral guardians to clamp down on freedom of expression poses a graver threat to the health of society than any imaginary Angelina-inspired gun crime spree.

Wanted is a big-screen version of a comic-book story starring Jolie and James McAvoy. She’s a kick-ass assassin, he’s a bored office dweeb getting walked all over by everyone. But, as the poster declares: ‘SIX WEEKS AGO, I WAS JUST LIKE YOU… AND THEN I MET HER… AND MY WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.’ It’s your regular ‘boy meets girl, girl gives boy a gun and several million dollars, violence and adventure ensue’ kinda movie.

Angelina Jolie in Wanted poster

The posters captured the film pretty well. ‘One poster showed the profile of the actress Angelina Jolie’, notes the ASA. ‘She was crouched with her elbow resting on her knee and was holding a gun pointing upwards. In the background the actor James McAvoy held a gun in each hand, pointing towards the reader.’ Another poster showed a variety of images, including one of Jolie ‘laid across the bonnet of a car on her back. She was facing the reader and holding a gun, which pointed in the opposite direction.’

Yet for the ASA, these posters were simply too much. In its ruling censuring the film’s promoters, the ASA states: ‘We acknowledged most viewers would understand the posters reflected the content of an action film. However, we considered, that because the ads featured a glamorous actress, action poses, several images of or related to guns and aspirational text, they could be seen to glamorise the use of guns and violence. We concluded [the posters] could be seen to condone violence by glorifying or glamorising the use of guns.’

Now there’s certainly no doubt that Angelina Jolie is glamorous, and that the posters and the movie appeal to the desire to be powerful and to be attractive to hot women like her. One suspects this combination is especially enticing to the kind of young men who spend a lot of time in their bedrooms reading comic books and who might just want to see Wanted. Also, as Adam Curtis pointed out in his TV series The Century of the Self, the advertising industry was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud – and that is well illustrated in the Wanted poster’s depiction of a sexy Hollywood actress with a ‘loaded weapon’ in her hands.

What is repulsive, however, is the assumption, made by the ASA and held by the kind of people who complain to such busybody organisations, that we mere mortals cannot distinguish between action-movie erotica and real life. Whatever makes people carry guns and commit murder, it is highly unlikely to have anything to do with what is on at the multiplex or with the poster on display at the bus stop. British censors have gone from arguing (on the basis of no evidence) that movies make us violent to claiming that posters for movies might tip us over the edge. This empowers our moral superiors, who of course are immune to such violent temptations, to control imagery not only in the cinema but everywhere in the public realm.

Worse, the ASA issued its completely unnecessary and censorial judgement after receiving complaints from just 17 people – thus facilitating what we at spiked have referred to as ‘the tyranny of the minority’. The ASA judgement is entirely subjective. So its scolding adjudication accepts that most people will understand perfectly well that this is just a movie and isn’t meant to reflect real life – and yet, rather than base its decisions on what the vast majority of sensible people will think, the ASA had acted on a ‘just in case’ principle because the posters could be seen to condone violence.

This tyranny of the minority – or, in truth, tyranny in the name of a tiny minority – has become common in recent years. In February 2007, House of Fraser pulled a promotional advert from its stores on the grounds that one person thought it was racist. A year later, London Underground banned posters for the theatrical comedy Fat Christ before anyone even had a chance to complain. Many other examples must never see the light of day, dismissed with pre-emptive self-censorship by producers and promoters afraid of incurring the wrath of the ASA, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) or various other bodies set up to determine for us what we should be allowed to see and hear.

The ASA ruling against Wanted will only reinforce this trend. Many commentators and activists in Britain frequently criticise deeply censorious countries such as China or Iran, where very small groups of people determine what the mass of the population can read or watch. Yet in Britain, too, measures are being put in place to allow the sensitivities of infinitesimal minorities to determine what the majority can glimpse in the public realm. We should say loud and clear that such petty censoriousness is not Wanted here.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild attacked the pre-emptive censoring of Fat Christ posters. Brendan O’Neill revealed the prudishness of the Advertising Standards Authority and how advertising is a free-speech issue. Alex Hochuli warned of the dangers of the tyranny of the individual. Shirley Dent looked at the row over ‘chocolate Jesus’. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

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

Topics Politics


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