Bare-faced cheek of a naked butt

The recent survey on nudity in advertising showed once again the impossibility of the satirist’s task.

In his novel The Tin Men, Michael Frayn describes how, at the William Morris Institute of Automation Research, computers are programmed to carry out menial tasks such as writing newspapers and saying prayers. Research is a necessary part of the programme, hence the crash survey to establish newspaper readers’ preferences.

Among the findings were that people were not interested in reading about road crashes unless there were at least ten dead.

“A road crash with ten dead, the majority felt, was slightly less interesting than a rail crash with one dead, unless it still had piquant details – the ten dead turning out to be five still virginal honeymoon couples, for example, or pedestrians mown down by the local JP on his way home from a hunt ball. A rail crash was always entertaining, with or without children’s toys still lying pathetically among the wreckage.”

Just how easily the bizarre inventions of a comic novelist’s mind are translated into everyday life was shown by the Independent Television Commission’s research. The study conducted by the Qualitative Consultancy on behalf of the quango discovered that while a single female nipple under the shower is tolerable, a bare male bottom is not.

When a man is glimpsed with “legs spreading”, as in swimming shots, it causes still greater offence. “Men had a particular problem with images of nude men,” says Wendy Hayward, a member of the research team. “Perhaps there was some homo-erotic problem lurking there.” Or then again, in the case of men who prefer their naked humans to be female, perhaps not.

Among the other findings were that while over-the-shoulder shots of single breasts were regarded as largely acceptable, scenes of full frontal female nudity were considered beyond the pale for advertising at any time of day.

You have only to step back from this survey to appreciate its exquisite absurdity. In a Britain beset by all manner of seemingly intractable problems, from juvenile crime to drug abuse, there are a few cosy havens in which a selected sample of inhabitants are gently questioned about nipples.

“If shown an over-the-shoulder shot of a single breast, as opposed to an under-the-thigh depiction of a full complement, would you be offended (a) hugely, (b) fairly hugely, (c) not much, or (d) don’t know?

Which of the following is, in your opinion beyond the pale: (a) a single naked female buttock, (b) a pair of male clothed buttocks, legs spread (c) two small breasts, wet, (d) a male bottom, hairy?

Of course, there’s no pleasing some folk. Had the researchers quizzed Ms Peggy Alexander, of the Green Party, they would have found that she prefers naked people to be imperfect.

In an example of how even the most impeccably politically correct movement may be deemed politically incorrect, Ms Alexander excoriates an animal rights group for using a naked supermodel in an advertising poster.

A campaign on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) shows the blonde German model, Nadja Auermann, seated decorously in the half-light and wearing only lipstick and blusher. Beside her is the slogan: “I’d rather go naked than wear fur.”

“This advertising campaign shows that women can only make protests by showing their breasts,” splutters Ms Alexander, even though care has been taken to conceal the Auermann breast beneath the Auermann arm. “It says it is okay to show your body as long as you are thin and six feet tall. Peta should also include images of overweight and short people.”

I should be surprised if a survey such as that conducted by the Qualitative Consultancy were to find public opinion behind Ms Alexander. A population that draws the line at a single comely nipple is unlikely to endorse the depiction of a deeply pendulous breast whose downward progress is arrested by a protuberant belly atop a squat pair of legs.

There is, after all, such a thing as aesthetics. The Greek sculptors of old could have put Peggy right on this one.

In any case, there may not be as many overweight people as previously thought. The Government’s view that obesity is fast reaching epidemic proportions is supported by allegations that we are a nation of idle slobs.

But – wonderful things, surveys – according to research on behalf of Volvo UK, we are in fact a people brimful of energy. The study found 60 per cent of the general public “following an active lifestyle and many looking for more adventurous pursuits”.

Cycling, mountain bike riding, fell walking and mountain climbing are popular pursuits, with many demonstrating an interest in snow boarding and water sports. More than half those surveyed say that taking part in this type of action activity makes them feel “more alive”.

Should the ITC wish to take its interest in nudity further, it might be an idea to investigate the attitudes of cyclists and fell walkers. As a working hypothesis it might be the case that, being more alive, they are more tolerant, even exuberant, about nipples and buttocks. In which case there would be implications for the advertising of bicycle clips and the works of A Wainwright.

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