Shock advertising: Double standards

FEATURE - Why asks Jane Simms is a shock ad more likely to be censored than a shocking TV programme?

Just one viewer has complained to Ofcom about Sky One's controversial US drama Nip/Tuck, even though it has been graphically depicting sex, plastic surgery and drug-taking at 9pm every Tuesday for the past ten weeks, and attracted a million viewers for its UK debut.

When Sex Pistol John Lydon berated the 12 million viewers of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here as "fucking c***s" for not voting him off the programme, ITV got away without even a rap across the knuckles.

Similarly, a trailer for Channel 4's Sex and the City passed unremarked, despite depicting a woman who had apparently just performed oral sex on a man saying "It gives a whole new meaning to eating in".

But a Wrigley ad for its Xcite chewing-gum brand, which showed a man appearing to vomit up a dog, was taken off air last March by then regulating body the Independent Television Commission (ITC). The Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO ad provoked 863 complaints, earning it the dubious distinction of the UK's most complained-about TV ad of all time.

A Pot Noodle execution by HHCL that featured the strapline 'The slag of all snacks', meanwhile, was banned by the ITC until after the watershed.

And last week an ad for Channel 4 featuring celebrities saying their favourite swearwords was rejected by the Cinema Advertising Association for its nine uses of the word c***, despite the fact that it was intended for over-18s.

This growing discrepancy between shocking programme content getting away scot-free and the heavy censorship of advertising has led some to suggest the latter is the victim of a broadcasting double standard.

Raoul Pinnell, vice-president, global brand and communications at Shell, feels so strongly about the issue that he commissioned Billetts to carry out some research, which he revealed at the annual conference of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) earlier this month.

Taking the blame

Pinnell is concerned that despite its strong system of self-regulation, advertising still gets the blame for a lot of society's ills. As he points out, rises in smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, crime and abusive language are far more likely to stem from the kind of behaviour seen on TV in Coronation Street, EastEnders or The Bill than they are to be influenced by advertising.

"There is a danger that we have created a regulated adland that pays for the promotion of a wide range of behaviour in programmes, for which advertising gets the blame," he says.

Broadcast advertising is subject to regulation, as laid out in the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the Communications Act 2003, under provisions set by the ITC Advertising Standards Code and the Radio Authority Advertising and Sponsorship Code, both of which now fall under the Ofcom umbrella. Broadcast ads are pre-vetted either by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre or the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre.

All non-broadcast ads must comply with the self-regulatory Committee of Advertising Practice Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing, which is enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Programme content, formerly within the remit of the ITC and Broadcasting Standards Committee, is also now regulated by Ofcom.

The traditional defence for the different regulatory approaches is that consumers have different expectations of programming and advertising, and that viewers know what to expect when they tune in to a TV show, but can be surprised by the ads.

"Advertising is the televisual equivalent of a door-to-door salesman - it is slightly intrusive and we resent the fact that it is trying to flog us something," says Ian Blair, head of advertising in the content and standards group at Ofcom. "But that only really matters when an ad is 'edgy' in some way. Viewers really don't like being shocked or offended as a way of being sold to."

Hamish Pringle, director-general of the IPA and a member of the Advertising Association taskforce on self-regulation, disagrees. "What is 'un-commercial' about programme content or editorial?" he asks. "They are not created out of love or altruism, but to get people to buy them. Why is a glimpse of a nipple in a Neutrogena shower gel ad any more 'commercial' than a naked page-three girl in The Sun?"

And the argument that advertising is unplanned viewing holds no water in the modern media landscape, points out Pinnell, as viewers can hop between channels and control their viewing schedules through technology such as personal video recorders.

Extending restrictions

Neither Pinnell nor Pringle want the advertising rules to be relaxed, however. "It is in our interest to do everything we can to maintain the self-regulatory framework if we want to retain freedom of speech," says Pinnell. But they believe that some of the restrictions imposed on advertisers should be extended to the programme makers too.

Billetts' research did not conclusively confirm Pinnell's belief that programme content was any more offensive than advertising. The panel watched 90 hours of terrestrial television drama, light entertainment, comedy, talk shows, reality TV, soaps and films over a period of two months.

It logged instances of mismatches in behaviour under the categories of smoking, drinking, drugs, driving, language, sex and nudity, and violence and crime using 21 levels of offence, from 'harmless' to 'disgusting'.

While overall there were a lot more instances of potentially offensive behaviour in programming than advertising, when broken down to an instances-per-hour basis, the discrepancy narrowed significantly.

In two categories - nudity and sex and violence and crime - there were more instances of potentially offensive behaviour per hour in advertising than there were in programming. But the offence in the ad was usually far milder than that in the programme.

Programmes had more instances of aggressive violence and crime than ads, but not enough to prove the core hypothesis in viewers' minds. "So the only real evidence of double standards was in terms of different degrees of offence," says Pinnell.

Yet when Billetts analysed the research further, it discovered that most of the programme offences, particularly those concerning violence, crime, sex and nudity, were concentrated in the trailers, many of which appeared before the watershed.

This leads to the conclusion that programming is more offensive than advertising, but advertising offends more frequently. Yet the number of people complaining about ads is rising significantly faster than the number who complain about programmes.

In 2003 the ITC received a record number of complaints about ads - nearly 10,000 compared with 8300 in 2002. Fewer than half that number complained about programme content. The increase last year is explained by a number of ads - such as Wrigley's Xcite - attracting especially high levels of complaints.

But the number of ads attracting complaints is not rising significantly, nor has there been a dramatic rise in the number of complaints upheld, says Ofcom's Blair. In an average year, the ITC upholds 90 to 100 out of 2000 to 3000 advertising cases raised. "Consumers are just finding more reasons to complain than they used to," he says.

Pringle puts the rise down to the ease with which people can complain and the encouragement they get from seeing results. "And that's to be encouraged as part of the healthy self-regulation process," he says.

But he believes the criteria the ITC and ASA use to ban ads is often too subjective. "The Xcite ad was brilliantly done; a fantastic ad. The people who complained must have had pretty weak stomachs in the first place, but why didn't they change channels?"

Peter Knowland, new business and client service director at AMV, says his agency has learned a lot - not least "the need for a greater connection between the creative context and the media placement".

He explains: "We could have been cleverer in reaching our audience in a more targeted way. Though our specific target audience was youth, we trespassed unintentionally into the mainstream, which is what caused so much offence. We are now much more conscious of media-placement issues and work hard at ensuring that, despite greater fragmentation among agencies, that message doesn't get lost."

Both AMV and HHCL deny they set out to make controversial ads to attract attention or be deliberately provocative. "The Wrigley ad was a genuine response to the brief," says a spokeswoman for AMV. "The brand wanted something that would hit consumers between the eyes - but in a dramatic rather than a shocking way."

Her claim that the agency wants to be seen as responsible is backed up by its decision to pull the Xcite ad as soon as it realised how much offence it was causing.

Minnie Moll, marketing director at HHCL\Red Cell, thinks grading ads along the lines of cinema film ratings might be one solution to the conundrum, with certain grades of ads placed in equivalent-rated programmes. "The 9pm watershed is a very blunt instrument these days," she says.

Working within the regulatory constraints forces advertisers and agencies to be clever, creative and imaginative, says Moll. But she is frustrated by the contradictory imperatives of not being able to reflect 'real life' in advertising, while at the same time being criticised for portraying stereotypes.

"We do work for the COI, which is encouraging us to include images of disability in its advertising. But when you try to get a disabled person into an ad for, say, peanut butter, the regulator tells you it is gratuitous," she says.

Certain advertisers do push the boundaries, of course. "Some agencies are notorious for it and seem more interested in their own fame than that of their clients," says Pinnell. He judges the kind of advertising employed by FCUK, for example, to be "a lazy way of approaching creativity, a cheap trick and a joke that can't be sustained indefinitely".

Benetton courted controversy unashamedly a few years ago with its graphic depictions of dying AIDS patients, newborn babies and bloodstained battle-dress. For a while, the publicity it attracted from its shocking approach in the mass media benefited the brand.

But responsible advertisers are concerned that this sort of approach is not only potentially damaging to the brand in question, but also risks their advertising freedom.

Control aversion

Pinnell is sceptical about the will of media owners and regulators to extend advertising's strong self-regulatory framework to programme content.

"They don't want to be seen to be 'controlling' programmes, while ads are fair game," he says. But he believes having Ofcom as the single regulatory body for all broadcast programme and advertising content will help.

Blair says rationalising, reviewing and integrating the codes that Ofcom has inherited will lead to a more holistic and less dogmatic approach to regulation. "Our primary concern is to protect consumers, but we will balance that against the new duty we have under last year's Communications Act to regulate only where necessary," he says.

He points out that advertisers can get away with more than they used to these days, though there has not been much change on the language and overt sexual behaviour front, because it is such a judgmental area. "How we apply that judgment is key," he concedes. "This is an area that we are likely to be looking at."

That is good news for broadcast and print advertisers alike. Later this year, Ofcom is likely to merge its broadcast regulation role into the ASA. But, says Blair: "The ASA is unlikely to diverge in direction from us, and Ofcom will retain backstop powers, even under a co-regulatory system."

Pinnell, meanwhile, admits he is 'Disgusted of Dulwich' and accepts that he may be best advised to decamp to an island and watch no TV. "Consumers seem to accept the shift in broadcast standards, but I think it needs further investigation," he says. "I'm not convinced that the regulators understand just how influential programmes are."

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