Bad taste attracts complaints, but bad timing gets punished

When it comes to viewer complaints about television programmes and ads, it’s not what you say, but at what time you say it.

Can 620 viewers be wrong? Or 1,040? Or 8,000? Or 55,000? People are complaining in greater numbers about television ads and programmes – partly because e-mail makes it easier to do so. But we’ve been reminded in the past week that there’s no guarantee of complaints being upheld, however many people register their objections.

There were 620 objections to the Pot Noodle “horn” advertisements, on which the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled this week. The KFC ad showing people singing with their mouths full has been the subject of 1,040 complaints in the past two weeks, making it the UK’s most complained-about ad. Just over 8,000 viewers complained to Ofcom about Jerry Springer – the Opera, both before and after transmission (is that 16,000 separate complaints, as the papers reported, or were they the same 8,000 complaining twice?). And the BBC received 55,000 complaints about the same show before it had even gone out.

The Jerry Springer complaints were rejected by the BBC board of governors and, last week, by Ofcom. The media regulator said that though a large number of people had been deeply offended, the show was “an important work and commentary on modern television”.

Ofcom pointed out that Jerry Springer – the Opera was shown well after the 9pm watershed, with plenty of on-screen warnings, and was put into a proper artistic context by other programmes. It also observed that freedom of expression was particularly important in the context of artistic works and beliefs.

The ASA has turned down the complaints about the Pot Noodle horn ad, even though many viewers found the ads tasteless, offensive, too explicit, inappropriate and embarrassing. If you’ve missed the ads, the ASA gives a suitably deadpan description of them in its latest complaints report:

“An advertisement for Pot Noodle showed a man with a large brass horn in his trouser pocket enter a bar. The camera angle moved to show his side profile. His friends stared at the large bulge in his trousers, which he tried to cover with his briefcase. One friend asked: ‘Have you got the Pot Noodle horn?’ and leaned over to grab the briefcase.

“As the two struggled the horn swung round and hit the man’s girlfriend in the face. She fell off her chair. The man said: ‘OK, I have got the Pot Noodle horn. It’s big, it’s brassy, and I’m going to blow it.'”

The ASA also describes a second advertisement: “The man leaped up and blew the horn. He was then called to his boss’s office, where two attractive women appeared with trays of Pot Noodle. His boss said: ‘I must insist you take Miss Ivy, Miss Joops, these Pot Noodles, go on a long holiday and don’t come back until you’ve done the lot.'”

One viewer objected to the ad because she thought it inappropriately implied that that the man could get rid of the Pot Noodle horn by having sex with the secretaries.

The advertiser, Unilever Foods, and the ad agency, HHCL/Red Cell, accepted that the pun on the word “horn” referred to sexual arousal, but said they’d taken care to ensure the ads were not too explicit for viewing after 9pm. The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) said the timing restriction was appropriate and, despite the double entendre, the “horn” was clearly a hunting horn. It thought the ads were similar in style to Carry On films and argued that the pantomime air took the edge off the innuendo. The ASA agreed, saying that though the visual and verbal puns could be regarded as crude and tasteless, they were not likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

As if to emphasise the fact that the number of complaints it receives does not influence its rulings, the ASA has this week upheld a single complaint about an ad that showed a man removing a woman’s bra during a passionate kiss. The ad, for Glamour magazine, was shown at lunchtime on a Saturday during the chart music programme CD:UK, and the complainant had been watching with his children. It turned out that the wrong version of the ad had been screened, “due to human error”.

The ASA also upheld 14 complaints about an advertisement for Zoo magazine, which showed two women wearing bikinis and bouncing on space hoppers in slow motion. The magazine cover showed the same two women embracing and apparently naked. Viewers complained that it was unsuitable for broadcast during programmes in the early evening when children were watching.

The BACC had given the ad an “ex-kids” restriction so it should not be shown in or around children’s programmes, but the ASA ruled that this should be tightened and it should not be shown before 7.30pm.

The message is becoming clear, both for advertisements and programmes. Numbers don’t matter. Timing does.

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