Are you getting too much sex in your ads?

With complaints at an all-time high, do advertisers really know what shocks us? A new survey reveals all. Report by Meg Carter

Public attitudes to issues of taste and decency are hardening. The 1990s may have some way to go before rivalling the 1890s, when even an exposed piano leg could cause sensitive souls to reach for the smelling salts. There is little doubt , though, that we are becoming not only more ready to take offence, but also more ready to make such offence known to the perpetrators and their regulators. And the media are in the firing line.

Television, radio, the press, and even advertising, by their use of swear words and portrayal of casual sex and violence, lay themselves open to accusations of legitimising these in real life. And complaints to industry regulators are running at an all-time high.

The Broadcasting Standards Council saw an 11 per cent rise in complaints about violence, sex and other affronts to public sensibilities in the year to April 1996. At the Independent Television Commission, 3,432 complaints were received concerning 1,204 ads. Meanwhile, the Advertising Standards Authority, which monitors non-broadcast advertising, reports that complaints rose by 33 per cent last year.

What exactly makes us so hot under the collar? According to ASA research into public attitudes published this week, we are concerned above all about bad example to children, swearing, ads in unsuitable places (such as posters seen by all the family which rely on adult humour), sexual explicitness, inappropriate images of children, violence and the sexist portrayal of women.

One quarter of those surveyed by the ASA claimed to have seen misleading or offensive advertising during the previous year. Close to one third claimed that they "sometimes felt offended" by press ads or posters, although just 1 per cent had complained..

When asked to be specific, two-thirds of respondents cited as the most offensive an ad featuring a donkey hanging on a meat hook - hardly surprising in a nation of animal-lovers, even if the image was used in "a good cause".

Second most offensive was the Benetton poster that featured a bloody new-born child, followed by the Hamlet ad which subverted the image of the Camelot hand of fortune, showing it with one finger raised, and Club 18-30's campaign based on lewd double entendres. When asked if they thought the posters should be banned, half of the respondents said "Yes" in the case of Benetton, and just over a third endorsed the withdrawal of the Hamlet and Club 18-30 posters.

The most recent storm has been over the ad for next week's British Condom Week, featuring a fresh-faced Prince Charles kissing his blushing pride. "Appearances can be deceptive," runs the copy alongside. "Use a Johnny Condom." Behind the campaign is the British Safety Council, which last year provoked more than 1,000 complaints with its condoms leaflet featuring the Pope on its cover alongside the line: "Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Always Wear a Condom". Treat a controversial subject with irreverent humour and the chances of offending someone, somewhere, are bound to be high. But the bulging mailbags of the industry watchdog suggest that this is increasingly the case.

However, to regulate the advertisers, and the media more generally, is not simple. When it is subjected to criticism, the advertising industry's response is always the same. "We reflect what goes on around us, we are not in the business of social re-engineering," one senior executive insists. "It's unfair to blame us for causing offence when the trends and attitudes we reflect are beyond our control."

Such as divorce. It seemed such a good idea: to reflect the reality of many children's lives in a recent McDonald's ad in which a small boy contrives a meeting between his estranged parents. But the public responded to the ITC with a resounding "No". The commercial offended 69 complainants, who believed the reference inappropriate and likely to upset.

Meanwhile, 73 people complained that a Peperami ad, in which an animated sausage rubbed its head against a grater, might lead to harmful emulation. Ridiculous? Don't forget that the power of advertising lies in its ability to make us aspire to the product it sells, points out Lynette Paul, spokesman for the Mothers Union. There could be side-effects which might be all too easily overlooked by the liberal-minded who work within the industry, and who may be in danger of losing touch with the outside world.

"They don't seem to understand what is not generally acceptable," explains Lynette Paul. The Anglican organisation, whose aim is to promote the family, is currently involved in an ecumenical media awareness project. "Many more things give offence these days than 20 years ago," Ms Paul believes. "And the effects are evident throughout society."

"Attitudes change when you consider the likely effect on others," says ASA external affairs manager Graham Fowler, "notably on older relatives or young children. What might at first seem acceptable, might not in retrospect." Too worthy to be true? Not according to BSC research last year, which showed half of complainants express concern for others - most often children - when registering their protests.

"Matters of taste and decency are highly subjective and change over time," Mr Fowler adds. (When challenged, one senior creative director of a leading London ad agency would admit to being offended by only one thing: "Mediocrity".) Even so, the disparity between agency and public attitudes to taste is not as great as some believe, if an ASA conference to launch the research yesterday is anything to go by. Industry figures present were asked what they thought the public's response to certain ads might be - and in most cases, as the table shows, Adland erred on the side of caution. While just 41 per cent believed the public would find the Club 18-30 posters acceptable, 65 per cent of the public gave the ads their OK.

A critical factor often overlooked when deciding whether or not an ad causes offence is its context, Fowler observes. "A large poster prominently displayed will inevitable be seen by a broad range of people who have no choice but to see the ad as they pass by, while the same ad appearing in a specialist magazine whose readership is that advertiser's exact target market, need not cause offence."

When the ASA upheld complaints against Club 18-30, many within the advertising industry accused it of being po-faced and humourless. The tone of the ads was right for the twentysomething package holiday market which it targeted, they claimed. The ASA upheld complaints about the posters but not about the press ads in youth and style magazines. "We don't overreact. That sort of execution on posters upset a lot of people," Graham Fowler insists.

Another factor is media coverage. A recent poster for Gossard bra Glossies featured a woman in black underwear beside the copy line, "Who said a woman can't get pleasure from something soft?" One hundred and seventy- seven complaints were lodged before Daily Mail columnist Lynda Lee Potter attacked the campaign in print. As a result of her tirade, a further 800 people complained ... just on the day her article appeared.

Of course there are some advertisers - such as Benetton - who set out to shock. While offending potential customers might seem a risky path to tread, there are those who use the notoriety to boost an image, especially among young consumers, or to attract editorial coverage to supplement a small budget. Although the Charles and Di condom ad has already been the subject of significant editorial, it is unlikely ever to run as an ad.

Yet, irrespective of the advertisers' motives, the fact remains that more of us are willing to speak out.

"Protest is no longer a minority thing, it's a mass phenomenon," says Ros Elwes, senior planner with advertising agency GGT. She has completed a study of consumer attitudes to complaining and charts a rise of militancy in all walks of life, and the emergence of a powerful new force she describes as the vigilante consumer. "Nearly 60 per cent of people we surveyed said they would be willing to break the law to show their displeasure. I was staggered. Not only is this a high figure, it is also not just a function of youth. People across all ages are more willing to speak out."

Government initiatives have created a new culture of complaint, adds Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teachers Associations. "There is no doubt that the Government's citizens' charter initiatives have encouraged parents in particular to stand up and fight. It's had a knock-on effect as young people grow up not accepting the status quo or being prepared to wait and see if things get better."

But are things really getting that much worse? Ms Morrissey is not so sure. "I don't think, generally speaking, there is more cause for complaint," she concedes. Ms Elwes adds, "There are many more ways to complain than ever before, and this has had an effect."

While the number - and nature - of complaints may reflect public attitude, it can be misleading. For one thing, there remains a hard core of people who gain great pleasure and personal satisfaction from their letters of complaint. "Without wanting to be a prude or a killjoy, this programme has for years been nothing but a moral sewer ... Periodically I watch - to see how deplorable it is," wrote one Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. Among objections made to the ASA (which were not upheld) were complaints that a Royal insurance ad featuring a pug was unfair to ugly dogs, and that a poster featuring a Twiglet in suspenders was sexist.

The number of complaints upheld is often a more realistic indicator than the number lodged. "While the number of complaints about taste and decency increased four-fold between 1994 and 1995 to 4,702, the number of ads complained about rose by only 5 per cent," Mr Fowler says. To put this in context: complaints were upheld by the ASA against a final total of 50 ads last year.

Some suggest it is the ASA which is out of step with public opinion, but Graham Fowler remains unperturbed. "The fact that the media can never decide if we're right or wrong probably means we've got the balance just right."

ARE ADVERTISERS IN STEP WITH PUBLIC OPINION?

Hamlet - Finger

Public: 35% said yes Yes : 35%

Advertising agencies: 34% thought public would be offended

ASA: 64* people complained; complaints upheld.

Club 18-30 - Package Holiday

Public: 35% said yes Yes: 35%

Advertising agencies: 59% thought public would be offended

ASA: 351* people complained; complaints upheld

Wonderbra - Hello Boys!

Public: 18% said yes Yes: 18%

Advertising agencies: 19% thought the public would be offended

ASA: 150* people complained; complaints not upheld.

Britvic - Fairy

Public: 15% said yes Yes: 14%

Advertising agencies: 21% thought the public would be offended

ASA: 33* people complained; complaints upheld; poster withdrawn

Benetton - Breast-feeding**

Public: 22% said yes Yes: 27%

Advertising agencies: 48% thought the public would be offended

ASA: complaints not upheld

* Figures correct at time complaints upheld or not upheld.

** Benetton breast-feeding ad ran in Cosmopolitan. Respondents were asked their view on it if it were run as a poster.

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