You need a sense of humour bypass to work for the asa

The standards watchdog’s decision to ban the Young’s ‘It’s a ram’s world’ ads shows what happens when well-meaning people apply their brains to a joke

In a well-regulated world, jokes would be scrutinised prior to their release to ensure their safety and fitness for human consumption. Each pleasantry would be analysed to ascertain that it comprised only natural ingredients and was free of contaminants and extraneous matter such as nudging and winking. Only after the most stringent tests had been applied would it be set free into the public domain.

If that seems but an idle dream, think again. Here in the world of marketing we have just such a body. It is not called Ofgag, as surely it ought to be, but the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). At present it is not permitted the safeguard of pre-vetting. Only after a gag has been let loose is the ASA able to set off in pursuit, butterfly net hoist aloft, and snare the blighter. Once trapped, it is taken back to HQ and put under the microscope. Should it be found to be carrying harmful material, it will be humanely put down. That might be thought drastic, draconian even, but considerations of public safety are paramount.

A recent example illustrates this procedure in action. The item in question was a billboard ad placed by Young & Co, brewers of Wandsworth, which depicted a man with a ram’s head surrounded by scantily clad women. The poster bore the legend, “This is a ram’s world”. It ought to be explained at this stage that a ram’s head has been part of the company’s logo for more than 150 years. As jokes go, the poster was not in the first division. It was certainly not in the boffo class (the joke that kills) nor even as entertaining as the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the female impersonator, but it was a joke all the same and, as such, fell under the cold eye of the ASA.

Sad to relate, it got the thumbs down and was withdrawn from circulation. Why? Because it was held to imply that drinking beer led to sexual success – a claim contrary to the regulations governing the promotion of alcoholic beverages. In the authority’s judgment the strapline on the poster featuring the women implied Young’s drinkers were personified by the ram, who was the focal point of female attention.

To the outside observer, there is something risible in the spectacle of a party of the first part dreaming up jokes, which then come under the watchful gaze of the party of the second part, which squashes them in the interests of a third party.

But there you are; that’s what happens when men and women of the kind who burst with good intentions and within whose breasts the flame of public spirit burns brightly get together and apply their brains to a joke. For it is a fact that when such people gather to discuss these matters they hang up their sense of humour in a locker room alongside their hats and coats. This is not intended as a criticism/ obviously, it would not do if the members of the ASA were to pass round the table a picture of a man who is wearing a ram’s head in the company of sundry half-naked females and were to laugh at it. Laughter is the enemy of judgment.

In discussing jokes, however, the ASA must constantly confront the problem of distinguishing between fantasy and fact, between featherweight flights of imagination and cold hard rules.

In the absence of empirical testing, which might involve a man with a ram’s head being placed before a woman in a bikini in laboratory conditions and notes being taken, the ASA is forced back on conjecture. Common sense would suggest that far from being sexually aroused by the sight of a man wearing a horned sheep’s head, a woman would be more inclined to burst out laughing, or perhaps run away.

Common sense also tells us that alcohol, far from being an aid to sexual success, is apt to put the brakes on a ram’s tupping. Many is the lovelorn swain who will testify that though the spirit may be firm after drink, the flesh is resolutely flaccid. But rules are rules and if someone, somewhere, believes that a pint or two of Young’s Bitter will transform him into a horny lothario, then the ASA is there to disabuse him, or rather to stop anyone else encouraging him, in this foolish fantasy.

A final thought: if, in these fevered and excited times, it might be held manly to drink beer, then it must also be womanly. For are not the bars of Britain a-throb with strapping lasses knocking back pints like stevedores fresh from the parching quayside? Is there a risk that they might think themselves lusty vamps after sinking the tenth? Now that really isn’t funny.

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