Advertisers face the lash of the bible belt

Christians are urging advertisers to pull their ads from slots around ‘UnGodly’ programmes.

The ancient practice of persecuting Christians is being revived by Channel 4. Or at least that is what some of the Christians believe.

First it outraged Catholics when it broadcast The Pope’s Divisions. Then came the controversial documentary on Mother Teresa of Calcutta – Hell’s Angel, followed by the repeated Catholics and Sex.

The last straw for many Christians was the broadcast of the film The Last Temptation of Christ by seminary drop-out Martin Scorsese, which depicted Christ having sexual fantasies.

But before Channel 4 boss Michael Grade feeds the Christians to the lions, they are striking back. Apart presumably from condemning him to roast in Hell, they are trying to hit the channel where it hurts most, and are leaning on advertisers to pull ads from programmes which they deem offensive to their faith.

A group of God-fearing MPs have signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons calling on companies to “urgently review their policy of associating their products with a broadcast designed to cause offence”.

They cite the broadcast of The Last Temptation as a provocative act designed to offend Christians. The motion was proposed by Liberal MP David Alton, who believes there is a groundswell of public opinion against Channel 4 for much of its controversial programming.

But other Christians disagree and say Alton is whipping up a storm in a tea cup. Media buyer Francis Goodwin of Maiden Outdoor, co-ordinator of the Christians in Media group, says: “It’s going a bit far. It is Channel 4’s remit to stretch the boundaries.”

Channel 4 denies that there is any concerted campaign against Christians or any other religious group. But at the same time, in the US the powerful Christian lobby group, the American Family Association, is spending $1m (640,000) on national newspaper ads urging a boycott of Unilever goods. It underlines the potential power the moral right can unleash when angered.

The AFA says the Anglo-Dutch company is guilty of placing ads during television pro- grammes in the US which feature “profanity, sex and violence”, such as NYPD Blue. The AFA’s founder, Rev Donald Wildmon, believes that more than 5 million US consumers could heed the call for a boycott.

Other AFA boycott targets include chain store Kmart for selling pornography, of which Wildmon says: “We started our boycott of Kmart four-and-a-half years ago, and since then the group has suffered big financial problems. The decline parallels our boycott.” Kmart blames more temporal trading conditions.

But Wildmon claims other US companies have reformed their wicked ways after AFA boycotts and cites SC Johnson and Burger King as examples of firms which have redeemed themselves.

Unilever rejects Wildmon’s claim that it has refused to meet the organisation to discuss the issue, saying several meetings have taken place. “We will continue to monitor trends in the programming where our ads appear,” says a Unilever spokesman in London. “We have previously withheld ads after reviewing programme content.”

The US has a great swathe of evangelical Christians, and the moral right has power far greater than in the relatively agnostic UK.

But the question for UK brand owners is whether such boycotts could occur here. As Unilever privately concedes: “We don’t want this thing to get legs.”

With an increasingly vocal Evangelical tendency within the British church, and a feeling among some Christians that liberal organisations such as Channel 4 have got it in for them, the prospect of a moral crusade is coming closer.

The UK has a long history of consumer protests on ethical issues, largely inspired by the left rather than the right of the political spectrum. The boycott of South Africa forced Barclays Bank to reverse its investment policies; Nestlé suffered from the protests over its activities in East Africa; “meat is murder” campaigns have depressed meat sales and environmental activists are threatening continued disruption of McDonald’s advertising shoots.

A spokesman for Alton’s office says the motion on The Last Temptation is not a call for a boycott of the brands which advertised. The motion lists 35 sinning companies which advertised during The Last Temptation: Nike, Flora, American Express Travellers Cheques, Woolworths and Tesco are among those threatened with eternal damnation. Even if some, including Woolworths, deny Alton’s charge.

Many advertisers already have a policy of withholding ads from slots where the programme content may conflict with the brand message. Tesco says it had expressly asked that its ads were not broadcast during The Last Temptation, but the station nevertheless aired them in a free slot at the end of the film. The supermarket chain has demanded compensation for the mistake and Channel 4 has apologised.

Rev Wildmon says there are no plans at present to export his brand of moral activism to the UK, but he warns: “We would be happy to work with any groups in the UK who want to carry out a boycott over there.”

There are signs that UK brands are increasingly willing to heed the clarion call of the Christian minority – Tesco is a case in point. But it looks doubtful whether Alton and his disciples will ever manage to amass the kind of following necessary to mount an effective campaign.

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