Advertising’s power to infuriate continues to surprise its begetters. The latest to stand back aghast and bewildered at the furore they unwittingly generated are the people who dreamt up a poster ad for the new Harvey Nichols store in Leeds.
For readers who have not seen the offending material, it depicts two identical images of a female face side by side, each with a lead attached to a collar around its neck. The caption reads “Harvey Nichols Leeds (Not Follows)”. If the aim was to amuse, it fell dismally short of its target. The women of Leeds – or at least those who presume to speak on their behalf – were outraged.
The city council’s women’s committee, a body whose very existence must cause many a male throat to dry and palm to sweat, describes the poster as “dehumanising”. Deputy chairwoman Doreen Lewis says: “Showing women in dog leads gives the message that women are not even human and that they need to be kept under control.”
To make matters worse, the posters appeared next to others promoting the council’s Zero Tolerance campaign against the violent treatment of women. “The Harvey Nichols posters are completely at odds with what we are trying to do, which is preaching respect for women,” adds Mrs Lewis crossly.
If I were a council taxpayer in Leeds I should not be pleased to see my money spent on preaching respect for women. The first duty of local authorities is to collect the rubbish and keep the streets and parks clean. Everything else is an indulgence and should be avoided if it involves public expenditure.
That said, I can see that the Harvey Nichols posters might cause offence to those whose sensitivities are especially conditioned to sniff out affronts to women. Personally, I find the poster not so much offensive as plain silly. First, the face it depicts barely corresponds to any image of the human female one might have acquired through personal observation or experience. The head is bald, the nose is composed of nostrils alone, the ears are sited rather too low and are misshapen, the eyes are almost entirely filled with some black substance, and the outsize lips appear to have been coated in Valspar. That this collection of features should be attached to a lead is no more bizarre than that the features should have been concocted in the first place.
Secondly, the caption is feeble. Confronted by the protests, a spokeswoman for Harvey Nichols said in an exasperated sort of way: “The whole point about the dog leads is that it is a pun on Leeds.” Quite. And a very small point it is too, the kind that springs to the creative mind before it has had time to warm up and ought to be among the first consigned to the wastepaper bin. One should be grateful that the new Harvey Nichols store (the first outside Knightsbridge) was not built in, say, Cockermouth. For had it been, and had that worthy Cumbrian town a women’s committee, its members might have been presented with a punning image of a kind that would cause them to asphyxiate.
Perhaps Harvey Nichols has made a mistake in opening a provincial store. To judge from the reaction of the women of Leeds, as expressed through the civic committee that speaks for them, they are far too practical and down to earth to respond to foolish imagery and feeble puns.
That women do not look like women at all but like some strange creatures from another world is a peculiarly metropolitan conceit. It is a notion created by the same frenzied minds that insist on peopling the catwalks and fashion pages with females whose bodies are strangers to subcutaneous fat. Londoners, especially the kind that shop at Harvey Nichols, are accustomed to seeing these images of the walking undead and accept them as a tiresome but meaningless convention.
But what passes for chic in Knightsbridge is liable to be put under a colder eye in New Briggate. Londoners mistake empty pretension for sophistication. Yorkshire folk, less easily fooled, are renowned for the scorn with which they dismiss fancy ways and silly airs and graces. Show them a bald woman and they’ll show you a hundred in curlers.
What comes across strongly from this episode is the sheer self-absorption of the people behind the poster. Confined within the narrow preoccupations of haute couture, they are unable to imagine that to put women in dog collars might upset a few people. In one way this is refreshing since it shows that political correctness has failed to permeate a little corner of society where one might have expected it to flourish. One must assume that the poster was the result of insensitivity rather than arrogance, since it is impossible to believe that Harvey Nichols would deliberately set out to cause offence as part of the launch of a new store. That would be carrying metropolitan hauteur too far.
This cause celebre is not unlike the kerfuffle when brewers’ promoted alcopops. They, too, expressed amazement that their marketing had caused offence and vigorously denied that they were trampling over sensitive ground, namely under-age drinking. Unlike the brewers, however, the storekeepers of Knightsbridge are gentlemen (except when they are ladies). I hope the Advertising Standards Authority, to whom the case has been referred, gives Harvey Nicks the benefit of the doubt.