In a cultivated society, anyone using the word “iconic” to describe something that is merely popular should be put in the stocks and pelted with noxious material such as Angel Delight. Passion is another word that’s misuse should be punishable – people who avow their passion for a pastime that interests them ought to be arraigned and tried. And the phrase “the pride and the passion” should merit a month inside.
These pet hates are my own and, if you have read this far, I thank you for your forbearance. But imagine if you had to listen to someone else’s foibles, day in and day out, for a living. You would need to be well recompensed, with lengthy annual leave, and to have on hand at all times the services of a trained nurse. I do not, however, imagine that those who toil behind the scenes at the Advertising Standards Authority enjoy such benefits; and if they do not, we should all share the guilt for their suffering. There are some jobs that ought not to be performed by anyone nor asked of anyone, and reading daily the complaints of the public should be among them.
I am sure that all that stands between the worthy servants of the ASA and the pit of insanity is that they are spared the need to meet complainants face-to-face, or one-on-one (another phrase that should be punishable by six strokes of the lash). That is not to suggest that all who bring their protests to the authority are either foam-flecked to the waist or have fingers stained with green ink. To the casual observer some may appear quite normal, but you would still not wish to meet them in a pub or a confined space.
That said, the ASA does perform a useful function, though largely by accident. In hearing complaints, year after year, it acts as a barometer of public opinion, albeit opinion voiced at the wilder margins. As we review the grumbles, whines and protests that have been laid for inspection on the doormat of the ASA we can see changing sensibilities and the things that bruise them.
In the 1970s, the ASA reported that “sex depravity, pornography and general sleaziness” caused the greatest offence. That is no longer the case. Though advertising today is often far more explicit than it was 30 years ago, people are less agitated by the underside of life. For that we have to thank politicians who have inured us to sleaziness, and the great institutions of broadcasting whose eagerness to move with the times and display their demotic credentials has led them helter-skelter into the sluices, gutters and ditches. Auntie Beeb, for instance, has cast off her fustian and bombazine and now has a butterfly tattooed on the base of the spine and wears a Burberry thong.
So what in advertising offends today? Well, in no particular order, the answer is same-sex kisses, religion and knives. Broadly speaking, complainants are either people for whom the taking of offence is a pleasure to be relished and exhibited or people whose minds have become unbalanced by political correctness.
The former include all those self-employed people – and plumbers in particular – who bridled at a press ad by HM Revenue & Customs depicting a self-employed plumber evading tax by hiding under the kitchen sink. This, said the protesters, made them look like tax evaders. Gosh, how that must have hurt their feelings. The latter are represented by the 99 people who complained about a teaser poster campaign run by Five saying that “nothing good ever came out of America”. The ads were a dig at US films and TV programmes, but some people complained that the teaser was racist towards Americans and socially irresponsible in that it could incite racial violence. Yes, indeed. And my grandmother is a banana.
Was it the same 99 (minus three who by then had probably been locked up) who complained that a Kellogg’s television ad featuring a man riding a dog (to get home in time to eat Crunchy Nut) would encourage viewers to take to saddling and riding their pooches, a practice that would plainly not be in the interest of smaller breeds such as Yorkshire terriers?In response to this and many other similar complaints, the ASA maintained an outwardly straight face, and in so doing earned our admiration. How much longer, though, before they throw open their windows and start screaming?