In a PC world, all ads are being monitored

With ads being pulled after offending Italians and Parkinson’s sufferers, agencies are having to be more careful than ever. But is there a danger of sensitivity overkill? asks Sonoo Singh

When advertising watchdogs decreed last year that a Renault Megane ad featuring people wiggling their bottoms should only be shown after 7.30pm to lessen the risk of children seeing it, little did the advertiser imagine that its follow-up campaign would also be censured.

The sequel shows people in everyday situations shaking uncontrollably as the car passes by. This time the ad was rapped by watchdog Ofcom because it appeared to be mocking people suffering from Parkinson’s disease and similar illnesses.

Ofcom received ten complaints, four from viewers who had been diagnosed with Huntington’s, Parkinson’s or similar conditions. Last week Ofcom ruled that the depiction of people shaking violently was both offensive and distressing. Ad agency Publicis, which created the campaign, says that Renault had also received similar complaints and decided to change the ad a month ago, before Ofcom announced its ruling. The ad has since been altered to include a few “smiling faces” to show that no distress is being experienced while shaking.

But some in the advertising industry have expressed surprise at Ofcom’s decision to ban the ad in its original form – although Renault had already made the alterations detailed above – saying that the watchdog has succumbed to political correctness and the over-sensitivity of a small minority. Some agencies suggest that it was easier for Ofcom to ban the Renault ad than for it to suggest to the complainants that they were seeing distress where none existed.

In the same week, a poster campaign highlighting the offensiveness of travellers eating smelly food on London Underground is being pulled after it sparked a complaint from the Italian ambassador. The posters, created by M&C Saatchi, showed a portly Italian deli owner surrounded by salami and parma ham. They were seen as depicting Italians in a derogatory way and, potentially, damaging the image of Italian food products.

Wieden & Kennedy managing director Neil Christie says: “Both these episodes do sound a bit ridiculous. No one sets out to offend, and it is a bit sad that everything in advertising needs to be reduced to a common level of blandness to please everyone at all times.”

FCB London chief executive John Banks adds: “At a time when political correctness has almost overtaken our lives, we have to look at every ad that we produce three-dimensionally just so that we do not end up upsetting people.”

Mirroring their sentiments, McCann Erickson Europe chairman Rupert Howell says that advertising is too expensive a process to be in the business of offending.

This is not the first time that the advertising industry has been concerned about the drab diktats of political correctness and accusations that the industry is not sophisticated enough to be sensitive to religious beliefs, ethnic groups or gender differences.

Instances of ads which received complaints because they were seen as offensive, rather than light-hearted, include Mother’s Tommy Singh ad for Typhoo Tea, which showed Indian workers on a tea plantation. The complainants said the ad suggested that all Indians were simpletons, though this was not upheld. It was reported that the crew of TV show Goodness Gracious Me had helped to create the ad. Another TV ad, for alcoholic drink Reef, used the strapline: “Go Native” and showed bikini-clad women performing the traditional Maori dance the haka. This was deemed racist to Maoris and the campaign was halted.

Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners joint managing director Alex Kuropatwa, explains that it can be difficult to tread the line between being humorous and offensive: “Advertising reflects society and British humour has primarily been about ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. But that has changed, because society has changed. We would probably struggle these days to do something like Carling Black Label Dambusters ad, poking fun at both the Germans and the French.”

Bartle Bogle Hegarty managing director Derek Robson is also of the view that the “Anglo-Saxon” way of seeing things, which existed ten years ago, has changed more in the advertising industry than elsewhere. Like many advertising executives, Robson believes the world of advertising to be exceptionally qualified not only to take into account the minority view but also to apply common sense.

But agencies are worried that even though a self-regulatory code of conduct exists, forbidding them from producing ads that are offensive to human dignity or beliefs, the thought-control brigade could at times jeopardise innovation and originality in the marketing and advertising of products and brands.

Publicis chief executive Grant Duncan questions whether Ofcom’s decision to uphold complaints against the Renault Megane ad could set a precedent for the over-zealous PC police among the public to complain against all kinds of ads. “The Renault ad was absolutely not intended to distress people suffering from Parkinson’s. When advertising, offending people is never at the heart of any idea. There are ads with fat people, thin people, all sorts of people. For instance, the ad for Mint credit cards featuring a man with a long nose is obviously not about being insensitive to those with long noses,” he says.

Even so, Andrew Marsden, category director at Britvic Soft Drinks, whose Tango brand is known for its tongue-in-cheek advertising, says that advertising has a responsibility to be prudent. When, four years ago, Tango’s TV ad featuring a young man tormented by ginger-haired golfers with orange megaphones was banned on the grounds that it could encourage bullying, the brand retaliated with a gentle replacement and the strapline: “Drink Tango. It’s nice.” He explains that, though amazed by the reaction to the initial ad, the campaign was changed in such a way as to suit the needs of the target consumers.

In the world of advertising, much has changed to suit the shifting attitudes of consumers. Busty blondes are no longer considered mandatory or politically correct in selling beer, nor Stepford Wives in selling detergents; and racial stereotypes are frowned upon. The industry is painfully aware of any criticism that attacks its appreciation of diversity and human dignity in society. The ad agencies are united in their need to be consumer-driven – they aim to please, even though they may sometimes try to shock. But causing anguish is not on their agenda: they would only get grief back.

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