"We told the advertiser not to repeat the ad.” -- ASA

Advertising Of the many hundreds of news feeds I follow one of the most entertaining and illuminating is the one for the Advertising Standards Authority, the organisation that helps to regulate the approaches that can and can't be used by companies to sell their wares. Personally I think there should be an option for you to complain if you think the advert is simply substandard but they’d probably never get any work done then.

Complaints usually fall into two categories. Either someone has contacted them because they believe that the information in an advert is inaccurate or misleading – which is good because it means that a company can’t make outrageous claims about their product or with increasing regularity on the basis of morality which isn’t necessarily such a good thing because it leads to things like censorship.

What the ASA’s feed shows is that there’s a whole story behind every advert that has been pulled or re-edited. And that even the most depressingly obvious commercial can lead to a mini-version of the Lady Chatterley trial which considers the power of advertising and how thirty seconds of shouting about a product can contribute to the ills of society, leading to the breakdown of our morality. A typical example of a morality complaint is this one from a concerned citizen about a television commercial for the compilation cd, Clubland 11.

What’s annoying about this one is that the complaints themselves are rather perplexing, overlook potentially more dangerous issues and perhaps most seriously you have to wonder that with everything that’s happening in the world, why someone would decide to complain about an advert on a music channel for a compilation cd. Here’s the synopsis of the ad as it appears as the ASA’s website:
“showed images of night clubs and beach scenes interspersed with young holiday makers talking directly to camera in the Clubland camper van. The voice-over stated "Clubland 11 is finally here, 42 massive new tracks ... so what are your Clubland confessions?" A young woman said "Morning, woke up, did not have a clue what his name was." A young man said "Snogged her last night " and pointed at the young woman sitting next to him. His friend countered "I snogged her last night." A young man said "I've been here for six weeks and I've been with 39 girls and she's the 40th." A young woman said "We actually flash to get free drinks, no problem, nothing".
Seems that times have moved on since the animated pig from the Now That's What I Call Music 4 advert. Having not seen this advert or at least being unable to remember the advert I'm simply going to reserve my comments for what's in that synopsis and the adjudication. But just remember this whole discussion is about an commercial for some regurgitated dance music.

This advert attracted two quoted complaints (the first from a viewer the second from the ASA itself perhaps after it was highlighted to them). The first issue then:
”A viewer complained that the ad was potentially harmful because it could encourage promiscuity among young people.”
I do have a feeling I’ve seen this advert, but like most television advertising it passed me by. I matured in the 1990s, and in their book alt.culture, Steven Daly and Nathaniel Wise identify it as trait of those of us from that generation – it takes much subtler forms of persuasion to get us to randomly put our hand in our pockets (like a box full of the product next to a shop till with is why I’ve munched down a Wispa a week since it re-launched).

What’s more than a little curious is that this complainant has not only paid attention to the advert enough to read the content in a way which would make some media studies students envious, it has been evaluated against their own moral code and decided they didn’t like it enough to put finger to keyboard or pen to paper.

The problem is I’m not sure anyone watching – particular the ‘young people’ will consider the words of the actors in this advert for a cd and then think ‘I know – I’m going to go out and have sex more and with a greater variety of people!’ It doesn’t sound like something ‘young people’ these days need much in the way of encouragement to do.

The old argument considers if you show violence or promiscuous sex are you reflecting or perpetuating it? My answer has always been contextual or encapsulated in the word ‘depends’. And on this occasion, you have to believe that promiscuity amongst young people will happen anyway whether this advert exists or not and considering what it is it’s hardly going to be

In addition the complaint doesn’t extrapolate as to why ‘promiscuity among young people’ is a bad thing it just flatly implies that it is. It lacks a social conscience and doesn’t mention the other things the advert is doing which is skirting around the issue of safe sex and everything that was being taught about sexually transmitted diseases during and after the AIDS epidemic began. That’s something which is worth complaining about.

Except that why would you need to? It’s an advert for a music cd -- and how many of the viewers in the target demographic of which I'm in the upper reaches will like be paying that much attention? Won't it just pass most of us by? In addition, aren't a percentage of the promos on the same channel doing much the same thing and in even less ambiguous terms?

Understand, I’m not defending the advert, it sounds dreadful, fulfilling all of the clichés of that kind of advertising, portraying its target demographic stereotypically with a leaden script. When I had more time on my hands I used to always do the surveys carried out by those women in the street with the clipboards and every now and then I’d be asked to evaluate adverts and more often than not they seemed to be showing what the ad firm thought that real people where like as looked down at them from their high office window in the city.

Now the second issue levelled by the ASA itself:
”The ASA challenged whether the ad encouraged immoderate drinking and linked alcohol with sexual activity and success.”
Again, reflection, perpetuation and context. This complaint is slightly more complex because actually what it seems to be doing is holding the advert up to the same standards as a drinks commercial, which it isn’t – its for a compilation music cd. Should it be held to the same standard? Perhaps it should, but what’s equally curious is that in fact the encouragement to immoderate drinking is implied not explicit.

Despite the night club scenes, arguably you would need to know the vital context and have already had experiences in that area in order to understand the meaning of what is being said. There’s no doubting that excessive drinking is an issue in society, but like the first complaint, is it possible that this advert for a cd on its own has the power to perpetuate it and would encourage people to do more of it. I’m not sure that it would since they would need to know what the advert is about in order for that to happen which means they’d be doing it already.

The response. Universal, the company publishing the cd isn’t using the advert anymore anyway and will only be using an approved ad in the future for the Clubland albums and so it’s the broadcaster, Hits TV which is being brought to account. Predictably their first defence is that “they did not believe the ad contained anti-social or dangerous behaviour and merely portrayed a light-hearted vision of the holiday experience of their 16- to 34-year-old audience”. Actually, it probably portrays a rather sunny version of that experience judging by the stories that are constantly being filtered back from resorts.

Sadly, Hits TV then neuter their case by suggesting that suggestion that the context of the "we actually flash to get free drinks" quip isn’t what it clearly is – that the ‘drinks’ might not be alcoholic and that we’re not sure what was flashed – which makes them look like they know they’ve done wrong and they’re just skirting around the issue. And this is why its entertaining – there’s always a moment as you read through like a good courtroom drama when someone makes a strategic mistake and you can see what the outcome is going to be. It actually looks like they’re capitulating which is a shame because I think they would have had quite a strong case.

Both complaints were upheld. The first was for reasons that had nothing to do with the advert and indeed the complaint itself. The advert was broadcast during the day when kids could be watching. The word ‘likely’ is used. What’s odd about that is that the ASA don’t actually know that kids will be watching, they’re just assuming they must be.

Except you can actually find out if children are watching if the channel is getting enough viewers to warrant a mention on the BARB or ratings figures which now include a breakdown of proportions of viewers in each demographic. Marry the times the advert was broadcast with the ratings for the group you’re worried about and you’d know for sure whether these impressionable youngsters are watching.

If they were, well fine. But I would still refer to my previous comments that this advert isn’t going to be telling some ‘young people’ anything which they don’t already know. Which is sad but true. There is something to be said for the advert adding to the death of childhood but that’s perhaps a separate argument to what’s being considered here.

The second, the ASA’s own is upheld too and for the reasons I expected. The ASA say: “We considered that the phrase "We actually flash to get free drinks, no problem ... " would be understood by viewers to refer to alcoholic drinks, and encouraged immoderate drinking.” In other words, the viewers who know what the phrase means, the drinkers, would be encouraged to drink, which they probably do already.

There’s no denying that there are things to complain about in the advert but the problem is that the way the complaint is handled and the assessment is made it's as though this single spot has the potential to turn young minds throughout the country to more sex and drink which in a lot of ways elevates it and suggests it has an even greater potential than it actual has considering what it is, what it’s for and when it is being broadcast.

Actually what you should find alarming is that it’s encouraging young women to flash in public as a way of getting free alcohol which might be an age old tradition but is certainly a grey area from a feminists perspective and could potentially be rather dangerous if drunken men are involved which they presumably are. This could be the ‘sexual activity’ suggested in the adjudication, but again it all seems like a bit vague to me.

Except would an advert for a music cd really have the power to do that?

Really?

“Action – We told the advertiser not to repeat the ad.”

And I bet they did too.

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