Have ads fallen prey to religious hysteria?

Three out of the four most complained-about ads last year used religious imagery to sell their product. Is this due to a sensitive public after 9/11 or the ignorance of marketers? By Sonoo Singh

Religion is a minefield for the unwary marketer, and the use of Christian symbols in marketing provokes many complaints to advertising watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority. According to the ASA’s annual report, ads that offended Christian sensitivities accounted for three of the four most complained-about ads across broadcast and print media last year.

Channel 4’s campaign for television series Shameless, which referred to Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, was the most complained-about non-broadcast ad in 2004. In all, 264 people complained about it, but the ASA did not uphold the complaints because, it reasoned, the ad parodied the Renaissance painting, not the Christian sacrament.

The second-most complained-about non-broadcast ad was Schering Healthcare’s campaign for morning-after pill Levonelle, with its “Immaculate Contraception” strapline. It triggered 182 complaints, upheld by the ASA.

Religious sensitivities were also offended by a Mr Kipling’s mince pies ad, also created by Saatchi & Saatchi, that featured a woman named Mary giving birth in a nativity play setting. At the time the complaints were upheld by Ofcom, which transferred responsibility for investigating broadcast ads to the ASA last November. Ofcom agreed with 806 complainants that the ad mocked one of the Christian calendar’s central events and it was withdrawn.

But though these examples seem to suggest that campaigns with a religious theme are increasingly falling foul of the ASA, the watchdog is not convinced it is witnessing a trend. ASA director-general Christopher Graham insists the fact that three out of the four most complained about ads happened to be about the Christian faith is “purely coincidental”. But not everyone is convinced. To some these complaints do represent a trend, a symptom of faith becoming a much more politically fraught issue after 9/11.

Marketing Society chief executive Hugh Burkitt says that in the multi-faith UK of today, many Christians feel like a persecuted minority – hence the increase in the number of complaints from this community.

Independent research carried out in the Nineties for the ASA shows feelings run high when it comes to religious references in advertising. Many respondents said they feared Christianity was too often the butt of jokes.

McCann Erickson’s president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Rupert Howell, agrees with Burkitt and adds that when other minority faiths assert themselves, it is inevitable that the majority Christian faith will try to do the same. He also believes that the mood of religious indignation has been fuelled by the US. But both Burkitt and Howell say this does not mean the UK is turning into a nation of fundamentalists.

The ASA’s Graham says there is always the risk of causing offence when using religious imagery in marketing. “There is a difference between Vicar of Dibley-type jokes and the Levonelle ad, which was a direct pun on the Roman Catholic dogma of the immaculate conception and likely to cause offence, particularly in an ad for a contraceptive product.”

Other examples of complaints related to religious sensitivities and upheld by the ASA include a 2003 House of Fraser ad featuring a procession of Hare Krishna followers with the caption, “If I wasn’t a chanting, cymbal-banging, easily-led nutcase who’d been brainwashed by some looney religious sect, I could be wearing Linea Direction’s extra fine merino sweater and linen jeans”. In the same year the ASA ordered SCA Hygiene to remove posters for its Velvet toilet tissue brand, which featured naked bottoms, from sites near mosques.

And in 1995, 1,192 complaints flooded the ASA when a leaflet for the British Safety Council showed a picture of Pope John Paul II in a safety helmet, with the slogan, “Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom”.

According to the ASA, these examples illustrate great ignorance on the part of advertisers. “We live in a much more diverse society and using religious imagery needs to be done with greater understanding,” advises Graham.

One marketer explains that while the public’s views on taboos such as sex and swearing have become more liberal, religious references still have the power to evoke strong reactions, and 9/11 has intensified that. The Christian reaction to Jerry Springer – The Opera being broadcast on television, and the Sikh response to a Punjabi play, Behzti, set inside a Sikh temple, demonstrate this.

Tapping into this heightened religious sensitivity, the Government planned to introduce laws curtailing the freedom to criticise and satirise religions and religious imagery in its Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill, but this was rejected by the House of Lords.

Critics of the Bill rejoice that the freedom to satirise people’s beliefs has been preserved. but for the advertising world, where the mission is to sell rather than satirise, treading warily is still advised.

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