I am intrigued by attempts on the part of highly respectable organisations to pre-empt the attentions of the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA is hardly the most fearsome of regulators, being about as frightening as the Football Association is to Premiership footballers, or the Financial Services Authority to the spivs who sell us pensions and life assurance.
Yet there appears to be a trend towards a degree of self-regulation by advertisers that would imply they live in fear of punitive sanctions, such as large fines, media bans or enforced attendance at advertising awards ceremonies.
I gather that Allied Domecq, the distiller of such tipples as Ballantine’s whisky, Sauza tequila and other tipples, presumably not unknown to lounge lizards, has come over all self-censorious and formed a committee of latter-day Temperance Society paragons to adjudicate on its advertising standards.
So it is that one of its new lines, called Wet By Beefeater, has been scrutinised. WBB, if I may so abbreviate this snappy brand (my agents will be in touch with regard to the fee for this brand consultancy), is described as a cocktail-friendly version of Beefeater Gin.
As if the excellent, standard Beefeater Gin (40 per cent proof; none of your 37.5 per cent hooch) is exactly hostile to the cocktail process. It even has cocktail recipes on its website.
Anyway, we can reasonably assume that WBB is unlikely to be aimed at the retired major at the golf club; more likely the Lothario estate agent in the night club. We should safely assume that the advertising is unlikely to feature old gentlemen in medieval clothes, guarding the ravens at the Tower of London.
And we’d be right. Allied Domecq is in the bodily juices market here and its crack brand management team has come up with a range of suitably salacious commercials that it has run past its in-house panel of bluestockings.
These guardian’s of Allied Domecq’s morality are Jose Massaguer, a regulatory lawyer from Spain (where, as we all know, they don’t have sex), Hugh Burkitt, chief executive of the Marketing Society (likewise), and Jodie Bernstein, former head of consumer protection at the US Federal Trade Commission.
Readers of a sensitive disposition should not read on, for these monitors have ruled against an ad featuring a fit example of the human species at a piano with the deathless caption: “When he looked at her like that she knew she would get wet.”
Meanwhile, the external adjudicators have approved a separate picture of a bored woman with the slogan “While she was getting no more than polite conversation, somebody somewhere was getting wet.”
These arbiters of good taste sit in committee with four Allied Domecq executives. I’d have loved to hear them argue the differences in nuance between these two straplines.
Apparently, they considered the second of these examples acceptably tongue-in-cheek. I have to ask whose cheek and whose tongue?
Before we all have the vapours, let me turn to an altogether drier subject, as it were. Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, has been running a deliberately shocking campaign on child poverty, with shots of newborn babies digitally manipulated to appear to have cockroaches, syringes and the like protruding from their mouths.
The point is that those born with silver spoons in their mouths have their opposite reflection in children whose futures are prescribed by their disadvantages. A powerful message – and Barnardo’s is no stranger to shock tactics, having run a series on abused and neglected children with prematurely aged faces.
But its chief executive, Roger Singleton, felt sufficiently moved by the apparent outrage generated by these images to take full-page advertisements in the national newspapers at the weekend to apologise and to offer an explanation of what his organisation was trying to achieve by running them.
This is odd, since the ASA – much to its credit in my view – didn’t uphold complaints about its previous hard-hitting campaign. Indeed, the ASA has similarly not upheld complaints against Brent Council, for running a drugs campaign complete with expletives.
Singleton writes in his justification: “We feel that it is our duty to ensure that the issue of child poverty in this country is no longer neglected.” I agree. Those who rant about such images remind me of the Daily Telegraph correspondent who, some years ago, complained that a front-page picture of a dying British soldier in Northern Ireland, stripped to his underpants and with a priest administering the last rites, had put him off his breakfast.
But it puzzles me that Barnardo’s is seeking to justify itself before there is even an issue with the ASA – a body with which it has enjoyed a very sound record regarding its use of similar shock tactics in the past.
Barnardo’s is, quite simply, endeavouring to milk the controversy surrounding its campaign, under the guise of a responsibility for self-regulation – in this instance, a pretence at justifying its actions in public.
In this context, it is no different from Allied Domecq, which is using its own self-regulatory committee as a means of airing its new product through its allegedly proposed, controversial advertising, which it tells us it won’t be using.
It’s a trick this column has just fallen for by airing it further. And it’s a trick that we might expect from a booze company, though not quite from a children’s charity.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon