Pete Martin: Advertising, innuendo and outrage

FOR ALL the outrage over sexist advertising, the average Brit revels in smut but is unlikely to be fazed by gender gap in pay, writes Pete Martin

Protein Worlds advert sparked an outcry, but it was eventually pulled not for being offensive to women but for making misleading health claims. Picture: Contributed
Protein Worlds advert sparked an outcry, but it was eventually pulled not for being offensive to women but for making misleading health claims. Picture: Contributed

In 1933, Dorothy L Sayers’ published Murder Must Advertise, a detective story set in an ad agency. When death visits Pym’s Publicity, it finds an unlucky adman at the foot of the staircase with a broken neck.

To solve the mystery, Sayers’ posh sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey poses as an advertising copywriter. However, in this guise, the aristocratic detective makes another ghastly discovery: “… if, by the most far-fetched stretch of ingenuity, an indecent meaning could be read into a headline, that was the meaning that the Great British Public would infallibly read into it.”

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Sayers understood the world of advertising. She worked for a decade at SH Benson, the leading English agency of the era. The story is powered by the kind of internecine conflict you could see in many workplaces today. So, when a newspaper refuses to run one of the agency’s ads because the headline contains an inadvertent innuendo, it really is murder at the office.

Sophie Dahls Opium advert was most complained about but proved a hit. Picture: AP

Last week in Wales, you didn’t need to be any kind of detective to spot the innuendo in the bus ads run by Cardiff-based New Adventure Travel. Over images of semi-clad personages, both male and female, the bus firm promoted its latest route with the stunning single-entendre: “Ride me all day for £3.”

Despite protesting that the ads were “tongue in cheek”, the bus firm found that social media was not amused. Most furious reactions focused on the smutty sexism. One mother tweeted loudly “HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EXPLAIN THIS AD TO MY PRIMARY SCHOOL KIDS??” – though you’d wonder why anyone would ever think that a worthwhile exercise.

It’s easy to see these crass posters as proof that we are living in an era of “badvertising” – a charmless, low-minded, approach which gives new meaning to the term “sales offensive”.

It is true that clients find it harder than ever to command the consumer’s attention and loyalty. And, for a few firms, there is an inevitable lure in low-rent, edgy gags which might go viral.

However, the full picture is more complex.

These infamous bus ads are quite peculiar. For a start, the bus firm simply stuck the posters on its own vehicles. So, there was no publisher, or compliance with the UK rules, as required in normal advertising.

Certainly, this concept would have zero chance of getting on TV. Advertising scripts and finished commercials are officially vetted before broadcast. Indeed, these ads breach the UK’s advertising codes so flagrantly that no poster contractor or mainstream press title would have published them either. (I imagine that they might have found a home in the ironically puerile comic, Viz.)

We can agree that these ads are dire. But it’s worth asking exactly what we dislike about them, so intensely.

As a thought experiment, let’s say the ads had no human image. What if it were just a type-only poster on the bus? The line is still fumbling for our funny bone, in the wrong place. But does it seem as obscene? What if, rather than a beautiful young woman, the person holding the poster had been an ugly old man? Is that worse? What if it had been a cartoon character from Viz, one of the so-called Fat Slags? More obviously comedic, but still wildly inappropriate? Whatever you think, gender politics doesn’t explain our disgust.

My guess is that it’s the crudity rather than the nudity which offends.

In a similar way, subtlety was not what diet brand Protein World had in mind last month. Featuring a bikini-clad “babe”, its brash posters on the London underground screamed at commuters “Are you beach-body ready?”, and caused a furore among feminists. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned the ads. Not for sexism but for misleading health claims.

Yet provocative ads which are carefully crafted can still prove popular. Eva Herzigova’s cheeky “Hello Boys” poster gave the Wonderbra brand a serious uplift. (It attracted just 53 complaints.) Indeed, in the ASA’s list of the “most complained about ads of all time’, super-model Sophie Dahl’s nude poster for Opium Perfume was the only “sexy” advertising to make the Top Ten.

For 50 years, the UK’s complex advertising standards have been summed up in the simple phrase: “Legal, decent, honest and truthful.” However, it is lapses in common decency rather than lack of clothes which tend to get us hot under the collar.

Almost incredibly, the UK’s most complained about ad (for fast-food brand KFC) featured call-centre staff singing with their mouths full.

In recent years, the worst serial offender has been bookmaker Paddy Power. For the trial of Oscar Pistorius, their press ads were a triumph of poor taste, offering money back on bets if the disgraced paralympian “walked”. The ad was banned, and the firm censured for bringing advertising into disrepute. It’s unlikely that Paddy Power will repent.

In truth though, the British public don’t complain much. Even the worst examples in the ASA’s hall of shame average only around 1,000 complaints. You might be surprised at how strait-laced the culprits can seem: the British Safety Council; the Department of Energy and Climate Change; a renowned children’s charity; a Christian organisation; a chocolate bar sold to commemorate the First World War …

Still, it’s amazing that people can be so outraged by a tiny tawdry ad, and yet be left unmoved by something as big and serious as the UK’s 20 per cent gender pay gap.

Needless to say, most folk are hard to shock. Indeed, as Dorothy L Sayers implies, “the Great British public” seems quite keen on smut. And not very secretly. This is a country where Carry On films are cultural treasures. Our populist media obsess over scantily clad women. High-rating talk shows teeter along the borderline of taste and decency.

So, are we happy to be hypocrites? Can we enjoy the frisson of moral outrage and still relish the risqué? Or, for the moment, should we simply be glad that moral crusader Mary Whitehouse never had a Twitter account. Because, for a tolerant society, that really would have been murder.