Angered, Sore, Aghast ...again and again

Complaining about advertisements is a growth industry... ...some people never stop. Meg Carter talks to the people who meet campaigns with anti-campaigns
'Is this more or less pleasure than watching your child grow up?" Sean Connery's voice-over asks as the film shows the damage a .22 handgun can do to a shooting range target. This is the message from Snowdrop, the group set up after the Dunblane massacre last year. Whatever the general response, it will not match the gun lobby's for speed. Even before the advertisement had its first screening in cinemas last Saturday, 50 complaints from pro-gun campaigners had been lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority. The letters were virtually identical. Hardly surprising, says the ASA's director of corporate affairs Caroline Crawford, since the deluge followed an article in a specialist shooting magazine which urged readers to complain and detailed exactly the points they should raise.

Then there's Marshall Cavendish's Murder In Mind - a publication focusing on the psychology and motivation of famous murderers, including Fred and Rosemary West and Peter Sutcliffe. Its TV advertising campaign generated 241 complaints, the Independent Television Commission confirmed last week. "A good proportion came from the same part of the country, with identical format and wording," an insider said.

No figures exist for the number of self-appointed media watchdogs in the UK. However, anecdotal evidence from industry regulators, media owners and advertising agencies paints a picture of health and professional bodies, single-interest pressure groups, religious organisations, animal rights activists and independent moral crusaders, even schools - which are becoming more vocal and sophisticated in approach.

Things have moved a long way since the Women in Media Action Group supported by the one-time Greater London Council, which regularly campaigned against the portrayal of women in advertising especially where nudity (partial or full) was involved even when promoting body creams, show gels and cosmetics. In recent years, lobbying groups have proliferated, largely driven by specific issues in the public eye.

"The power an organisation or single-issue pressure group now wields has grown in strength and sophistication," says Crawford. In 1995 the ASA saw the first ever marked increase in complaints - up by 32.5 per cent on the previous year?. The main cause of this was a British Safety Council ad featuring the pope wearing a hard hat with the line: "The Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom." This generated 1,192 objections - many of which were from church-related groups - which resulted in the ad being banned.

Much as they claim to hate them, a high profile obectionable ad can be manna from heaven for a small, meagrely financed lobby group. "There is no denying that launching a strategy around a complaint can generate invaluable media coverage," one animal rights campaigner confides. "While we are fully behind the objections we make, there are other spin-off benefits." Like many other campaigners, he regularly updates supporters about causes for concern and distributes template letters intended for the relevant industry watchdog or regulator, to "help them register their complaint" and swell the ranks of the concerned. An alternative tactic is to publicise the offending ad more widely - for example, by drawing it to the attention of a sympathetic member of the local or national press.

When Daily Mail columnist Lynda Lee-Potter lambasted the Gossard Glossies bra campaign last year, 321 people objected to the ASA - many of whom had not even seen the "offending" ad. A further 800 people rang in. It attracted more complaints than the top 10 most offensive ads of the entire year, according to the ASA's 1996/7 annual report, published tomorrow.

Ms Crawford and her ASA team, however, refused to be swayed. "It may surprise many, but we never make an adjudication purely by number of complaints we receive," she says. "At the end of the day, [ASA] council has to be impartial to any lobbying. It must always ask what does the public really think, rather than rely simply on the views of one vocal group or a single, high-profile journalist." Wisdom of Solomon stuff.n

The Food Claims Campaigner

Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator The National Food Alliance

The Anti-Porn Campaigner

Anne Moyne, co-ordinator The Campaign Against Pornography

The Anti-Speed Campaigner

Food campaigners are among the best-organised lobbyists in Britain. More than 70 organisations - from radical single-issue groups to health associations and the Women's Institute - belong to the National Food Alliance.

"If there's a consensus, it is the view that children being targeted with unhealthy foods is abhorrent and distasteful at the very least, if not immoral," says Jeanette Longfield, who has worked with NFA since its launch 11 years ago.

Other issues likely to make NFA members' blood boil include the promotion of slimming products and food manufacturers' claims about their products. Recent activity concerned "functional foods" - foods that claim to have a direct health benefit. Ribena Juice & Fibre and Gaio yoghurt, for example, promised lower cholesterol levels. The ASA upheld complaints that there was insufficient proof for such claims.

NFA helps members swap information and unite for joint campaigns. Members circulate formated letters of complaint, urging recipients to send them under their own name.

Regulators, however, question some of the tactics food lobbyists employ. One source said, "Extremists can be highly selective of the data they supply to support complaints - a major criticism frequently made about the food companies."

Ms Longfield, a social scientist, says that safeguarding children's interests is key. The NFA is turning to Europe - campaigning for tougher EC laws to push Britain into line with stricter member states, such as Sweden 'We are vigorously opposed to the cult of speed," says Peter McGrath, spokesman for the Cyclists Touring Club. CTC was launched in 1878 to campaign against tramlines and small children throwing stones. Today, it champions cyclists' rights; it has 43,500 individual members and a further 20,000 through affiliated groups.

"There is a perception in the unthinking, right-wing section of the press that cyclists are dangerous," McGrath says. "This must be resolved." Careless hacks - such as the Daily Mail reporter who recently likened cyclists to street hooligans - risk swift rebuke.

Equally irritating to the CTC is the cutesy portrayal of cyclists as quirky eccentrics on penny farthings. Oh, and the indiscriminate promotion of cycle helmets without advice. "But our main emphasis is on car advertising and its emphasis on speed," McGrath explains. All too often advertisers emphasise a car's ability to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour within seconds, or suggest off-road adventure for an on-road model. "People just don't buy fast cars not to use them. Meanwhile, typical imagery in car advertising is of wide open spaces. This could not be further from the truth."

McGrath does not believe advertisers take such concerns seriously. Regulators only judge ads once they appear and if they rule against them, the worst the offender will get is "a rap on the knuckles". More effective regulation is required, he believes. Even so, the CTC has persuaded the Government to take cycling more seriously. It has won ASA rulings against Toyota, Mazda, Audi and Fiat 'It's not sex, but sexual exploitation we are opposed to. We are now in a backlash which has taken away many women's lib gains. As for the Advertising Standards Authority, they are a bunch of libertarians who do not act in the public interest. 'Taste' and 'decency' are stupid middle-class, elitist definitions of a totally subjective nature. It's a human rights issue."

CAP campaigns against what it sees as a "creeping culture of porn". It monitors ads and editorial coverage although limited funds means it must rely on its 800 members' vigilance.

"We depend on complaints coming in and then send out details to other members, urging them to write letters to the relevant industry bodies," Ms Moyne explains. Successes include cuts made to a Vauxhall Corsa commercial featuring supermodel Naomi Campbell in dominatrix garb. CAP members also picketed Vauxhall advertising agency Lowe Howard Spink's central London offices.

WH Smith has also ruffled feathers ("The H stands for hypocrite" she grumbles). Although the chain recently withdrew top-shelf titles from high-street stores, it still carries them at railways and airports and supplies independent newsagents via its national distribution network.

The CAP is considering whether its next campaign should target the ASA. "There is tremendous enthusiasm for getting rid of them," she claims. "We need a proper watchdog with a proper explanation of what degrades women and what is 'fun'

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