Computer game firms accused of inciting attacks on gays

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The Independent Online
Virgin Interactive's European marketing director, Louie Beatty, recently said: `We never brief any agency to go away and be controversial. That would be sad.' Well, if urging people to scream `Southern poofs' or `Northern gits' at innocent passers-by isn't controversial, what is, asks Clare Garner.

A billboard campaign which invites onlookers to shout "Southern poofs" as an invitation to get beaten up is being investigated by the Advertising Standard Authority following complaints that it is homophobic.

The posters are part of a pounds 500,000 nationwide advertising gimmick to sell a new computer game in the week before Christmas. A strapline on the top of all 400 posters reads: "New 3D Street Fighter EX. For the next closest thing, stand here and shout ..." Beneath, the words "Southern poofs" or "Northern gits" are written, depending on whether the billboard site is south or north of Birmingham.

Last night Virgin Interactive, which is marketing the game, insisted that the campaign was a joke, designed to give the public a taste of the essence of the technology. The terms "Southern poofs" and "Northern gits" were being used "as tongue in cheek, as common parlance," according to a spokeswoman for the company.

"It's not meant to offend," she said. "It's not meant to be aggressive. That's not what we're about at all ... We like to think we are marketing in a way that is slightly different to our competitors. We try to grant people a bit of intelligence, that they won't take it at face value. That they can see the joke, see the fun."

But some members of the gay community have not seen the funny side. Tim Teeman, editor of The Pink Paper, the national newspaper for lesbians and gay men, has had calls this week from readers upset by the advertisement. "Irony or no irony, the meaning is lost on them. It's presented so aggressively. It doesn't sound like a playful use of the word `poof', but an aggressive use which is a familiar term of anti-gay abuse."

The ASA is investigating the advertisement for possibly causing "serious or widespread offence." The watchdog's code states: "Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation or disability."

A spokesman said: "In this investigation, we will bear in mind that "poof" has several meanings to different people, and even within the gay community itself."

Other current Virgin Interactive campaigns include one for the Bladerunner computer game which has a tagline: "I wanna get this guy out of my hair. Fingernails ... carpet ..." above a picture of an artificial human in the game. Another advertisement runs: "It takes guts to do what I do. Theirs." For the horror game Resident Evil, the line runs: "Contains bits of the original."

A spokesman for Sony, which makes Sony PlayStation, the machine on which the Street Fighter game is played, said yesterday that the "Southern poofs" campaign had been damaging to them. Although Sony has nothing to do with the manufacturing or marketing of Street Fighter games, it has taken some of the flak for the ad.

Liam Hilley wrote to Sony complaining about the poster outside his bedroom window. The term "Southern poofs" is, he wrote, "an incitement to hatred and condones queer bashing." His partner had bought a new PlayStation and a number of games for Christmas, but after he saw the campaign they were duly returned to the shop.

"I would have thought it better business practice for your company to encourage gay men to purchase your products," he went on. "As gay men without family ties my partner and I have a disposable income in excess of pounds 3,000 per month. I am not the only one to feel like this. My family and friends have decided to boycott your products."