Advertising industry's creative minds face questions of taste

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Sensitivity to sex, violence and profanity in UK advertising is on the increase, but are advertisers themselves in tune with public taste? The Advertising Standards Authority aims to find out next week, when it asks 150 creative directors at a half-day seminar to judge whether 18 controversial advertisements would find acceptance with the general public.

Following the informal survey, which will be conducted using high-tech electronic voting devices, the directors will be given the results of definitive research, sponsored by the ASA, into public attitudes to sex and violence in campaigns.

The Authority expects to uncover a gulf between what the industry finds acceptable and what passes muster with the punter.

Many advertising executives are wary of the exercise, however. Some complain that the ASA is too prudish, and should take greater account of where and when adverts run - for instance in a magazine for young adults, or on a bus shelter. "Why should the same standards apply for a poster campaign as for adverts in Loaded?" asked one industry executive.

Another added: "It's all right to be 'boys behaving badly', as long as the advertising reflects the culture."

But not everyone believes the industry is getting it right. Peter York, the style commentator, said: "The new Loaded ladspeak advertising reduces refinement and daintiness in public life."

Concern over overt sexual images and innuendo in particular has been fuelled by recent controversial campaigns, not least the UltraBra advert, picturing a reclining, scantily clad woman, with the slogan, "Who says a woman can't get pleasure out of something soft?" The ASA passed that advert, saying that viewers were likely to believe the reference was to the "softness" of the bra in question.

The timing of the seminar is unsurprising. In the latest figures compiled by the ASA, the level of public complaints rose 33 per cent in 1995 to just over 12,800, and is running at about 25 per cent higher so far this year. Chief targets for criticism were adverts for Club 18-30, which ran its notorious "Beaver Espana" campaign on poster sites until it was banned by the ASA, and a whole range of adverts from Benetton, the Italian clothing company, which uses strong images of race and sexuality to shift sweaters.

The Club 18-30 campaign, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, featured a close- up picture of a man's boxer shorts, complete with evident bulge, with the slogan "package holiday". This was meant to attract women to the Club's holiday destinations.

Most recently, ads for Vauxhall, featuring "bondage" images of women and for Firkin beer ("You be Firkin legless") have created controversy at the ASA.