Media: Crisis of faith in ad land

There's money to be made from religious imagery, but when does the clever use of icons become blasphemous? By Clare Garner
Copywriters looking for an easy short cut to fix a message in consumers' minds have been happily borrowing sacred images. Instant iconography is the advertising industry's stock in trade, and they can count on a strong reaction to an image such as a bishop smoking a spliff or a woman nailed to a cross. Sacred imagery has been used to sell products as various as watches, lager, stationery, tyres and jeans.

However, campaigns with a religious theme are increasingly falling foul of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), prompting more complaints from the public than any other style of advertisement.

Last month, Paramount TV withdrew its promotional advertisements for the comedy show Drop the Dead Donkey. The image of a donkey's head on the Turin shroud, accompanied by the slogan "Resurrected", provoked 182 complaints to the ASA. Heineken also recently pulled an ad that showed a Nativity scene and the headline "It's a girl".

Now a Catholic newspaper, The Universe, has launched a campaign to end the use of images that mock Christ. The latest example is Pirelli's current campaign showing the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo adopting the Christ- like pose of Rio de Janeiro's statue of Jesus. The posters have so far prompted 24 complaints, but the ASA is yet to adjudicate. The Universe is urging readers to lodge complaints with the authority about this or any other "blasphemous" advertisement.

"Some people say we should get a life," ran last week's editorial in The Universe. "Others say that if we were really confident about our faith, we should be able to laugh at ourselves... But is it too much to expect a little decency and respect for our beliefs? It is very easy to turn the other cheek when we are insulted, but that's very different from rolling over every time some heathen wants to make a mockery out of 2,000 years of our history."

Last year, the public made 699 complaints to the ASA about 69 ads in which religion was seen to be treated disrespectfully. "In the past, it was only in the run-up to Christmas that advertising agencies made mileage out of religion, but now the trend seems to be year-round," says the ASA's Steve Ballinger.

Three of the top 10 most complained about advertisements last year mocked Christianity in a way "likely to cause serious or widespread offence", according to the ASA. These included an ad for "Heavenly Bodies", a photographic series in The Sunday Times Magazine featuring a photo by Terry O'Neill of a bikini-clad Raquel Welch tied to a wooden cross. It prompted 142 complaints from those who felt it was blasphemous to Christians.

The advertisers claimed it was important to understand that the photo reflected O'Neill's view that the Sixties was a decade that "crucified" the ideal of womanhood because it valued women only for their sexuality. But the ASA upheld the complaints, saying that most readers would be unaware of the motivation behind the picture.

The ASA received 95 complaints for an ad for Diesel jeans showing four young women dressed as nuns from the waist up, wearing jeans and holding rosaries. Behind them was a statue of the Virgin Mary, also wearing jeans. The caption said: "Pure virginal 100 per cent cotton. Soft yet miraculously strong..." The ASA ruled that it was unacceptable to depict nuns as sexual beings.

Independent research carried out last year for the ASA shows that feelings run high when it comes to religious references in advertising. Eighty per cent of those questioned said that disrespectful references to any religion should never be allowed. Many said they feared that Christianity was too often the butt of jokes, but the majority said that ads using gentle humour or mild religious references were acceptable. Mr Ballinger comments: "The ASA are not killjoys and we're not saying that using religion in a humorous way is a problem. However, when advertisers go too far and refer to religion disrespectfully, we have to reflect the sensitivities of those who will find this offensive."

Dave Trott, creative director at Walsh, Trott, Chick and Smith, cannot see a problem with using religious imagery, provided that the reference is witty. "Dawn French put it best for me when she said: `If it's funny, it is not bad taste, and if it's bad taste, it's not funny.' That's generally how I operate. I don't see why everything has to be tasteful. Our job isn't to make the public always like what we do."

Diesel's nuns advertisement "worked", in Mr Trott's view. "We don't want to go back to the days when we wouldn't do things just because it would offend some grumpy colonel in Sevenoaks. If you've got this all-powerful being which is supposed to be able to protect everybody for all eternity, why does it need to be protected by a couple of dopey human beings?"

Among the complaints upheld last year by the ASA were those relating to a Watches of Switzerland advertisement which used a picture of a bishop smoking a spliff with the caption: "Good heavens! Isn't that a Baume & Mercier Hampton?" Last week an advertisement carrying the headline "Jesus Was a Vegetarian", alongside a portrait of Jesus with an orange slice as a halo, was displayed on a billboard in Amarillo, Texas. It caused an outcry and was removed within three days.

The record number of complaints received by the ASA for a single advert - 1,192 - came in 1995, when a leaflet for the British Safety Council showed a picture of Pope John Paul II in a safety helmet, with the slogan: "Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom."

Rupert Howell, chairman of HHCL & Partners, believes that while advertisers must strike a "fine balance", religion should not be off-limits. "There's a bit of me that feels that the fact that we can be relaxed and lighthearted about our national religion is a sign of sophistication and development," he says. "The power of Jesus Christ has survived 2,000 years of turbulence. I think it can survive a Heineken poster."