Like them or ban them

  • Business
  • Saturday, 31 Oct 2009

THANKFULLY the very alert consumers, regulators and watchdog groups are still around and finding many holes to fix, particularly in the ad world.

People just love to ban things, and adverts most of all. And recently there seems to be something of a spate of ads being dragged kicking and screaming from billboards, magazines and even the interweb.

B&T, Australia’s ad rag, says that down there, an ad for Unit clothing has been censored by the Advertising Standards Bureau Board. This ad showed an image of white powder next to some credit cards. To someone, this powder seemed to represent “jazz snow”.

The advertiser actually didn’t deny the allegation but said in mitigation: “We do not glorify drugs in this artwork. We are simply holding up a mirror to society.”

In Australia, advertisers seem to believe ads have no power to persuade or influence. So that next time it seems a mirror image of some rape, murder and mainlining would be on the cards. And of course, Henry the Horse dancing the waltz.

In Britain, that bastion of liberal thinking seems to be in a positive banning frenzy. AdAge reports that a poster for a health drink called Vitiminwater (which sounds more like a small village in Surrey) has been banned in Britain by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The poster was headlined “More muscles than brussels” which, according to The Coca-Cola Company which makes this water, was in reference to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s nickname: “The muscles from Brussels” (coming from Brussels in Belgium as he does).

Some alert consumers thought it referred to the drink being as good for you as eating the famous veggies, “brussels sprouts” (coming from Brussels in Belgium as they do). One has to suspect that the ASA in their heady vigilance are quite possibly endorsing consumer stupidity, given that most English people believe sprouts are good for only one, particularly antisocial, thing. And most kids would rather eat yellow matter custard.

Britain’s Campaign Magazine tells us that an ad for the fashion retailer American Apparel has also been banned by the ASA.

This time for showing a young girl who was not only partially naked, but also appeared to be under 16. American Apparel tried to protest, saying that the model was actually 23. And given that the ad had appeared in a magazine titled Vice, you might assume it didn’t appear next to knitting patterns or useful recipes for brussels sprouts. I wonder who it offended.

And ads are now being rated. Adweek tells us that an iPhone application built for PepsiCo’s Amp Energy drink has been given a PG17 rating; it’s only available to users over 17 (you know what I mean). Probably because it gives hormonally challenged young men various pick-up lines for girls and even suggests strategies for seducing married women. Its description page on iTunes promises profanity, crude humour and suggestive themes. And a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

But not only are ads being banned and restricted, they are being sued. AdAge reports that Toyota Motor Sales USA and agency Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, engaged in a “terror marketing campaign” that frightened and harassed thousands of consumers via advertising e-mails, according to a lawsuit filed Sept 28 in Los Angeles. People were told a stranger was coming round to see them, making it sound like a stalker. One woman could not sleep, so scared was she (unless it was the brussels sprouts again). But nil desperandum, there is one small ray of hope, again from Campaign Magazine.

The British Conservative party tells us they want tougher voluntary curbs on advertising, particularly alcohol, but would not impose them by legislation if they won the next general election.

Call me naïve and sentimental, but if you were approaching a general election the last thing you would do is to tell people you were going to come down heavy on their favourite pastime. But you would (for the Blue Meanies) want it to appear that way.

So what have we learnt from all this? Well, the trouble with most regulating bodies (and we have our fair share here) is they are fully obliged to ban things – of course they are, it’s what they are there for.

Not to ban means not to exist, and finding something to ban is as easy as falling off a log; partially dressed girls, Belgian vegetables (the sprouts, not Jean-Claude), etc.

And in the end, you have to ask yourself: Are there really more naughty ads, or are there simply far too many people looking for them?

P.S. In Britain, songs from The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album were actually banned for supposed drug references. Oh boy!

■ Paul Loosley is an English person who has been in Asia 30 years, 12 as a creative director, 18 years making TV commercials. And, as he still can’t shut up about advertising, he will be writing every month. Send feedback to (please keep it clean).

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