I have never been so disgusted; So ... are these ads offensive?

Is the ad industry going too far? Or is there no such thing as far enough? Meg Carter considers the 'new yobbism'
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The Independent Online
A man stares at a sultry brunette. She turns, and as she walks towards him she draws a revolver from her bag. She aims and shoots at point-blank range, again and again. He staggers and falls, blood spurting from his chest. She fires again.

This is not the latest offering from Quentin Tarantino, but a cinema advertisement from Saatchi & Saatchi - for Don't Tell It, a style magazine.

Shocking? Undoubtedly. Offensive? That's harder to say.Chances are if that you are not in the target audience, you'll never see the commercial and if you are, you won't complain. At least that's what Saatchis hopes.

None the less, the Don't Tell It ad is set further to divide an industry already reeling after an unprecedented attack from one of its own. In a recent speech, Adrian Holmes, chairman of Lowe Howard-Spink, slammed industry colleagues for peddling "new yobbism". He targeted a number of campaigns, such as the "Beaver Espana" ads for Club 18-30, propelling the issue out of the trade magazines and into the national press.

If advertising could successfully sell products, Mr Holmes asked, why couldn't it as successfully influence behaviour? Agencies should proceed with greater care. But, others have retorted, advertising reflects society's values and concerns. It does not, and should not, playsocial engineer.

Caught in the crossfire are the industry watchdogs. The Don't Tell It campaign highlights their dilemma. For the Advertising Standards Authority, Independent Television Commission and Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre must decide what is and what is not acceptable at a time when Reservoir Dogs is finally available on video and Natural Born Killers is playing in British cinemas.

"Attitudes to what is and what is not acceptable vary by region, by age and by different interest groups," says Matti Alderson, director general of the ASA, which regulates the 25 million non-broadcast ads published in the UK each year. Matters of taste and decency, she points out, can only ever be subjective.

Uisdean Maclean, head of advertising clearance at the BACC, which vets all TV and radio ads before transmission, agrees: "When we discuss issues of taste we must consider these in the light of prevailing issues and these change. Inevitably agencies will probe the edges of acceptability."

According to watchdogs, sexual innuendo causes most public complaints, but sexism and setting a bad example contribute to the swelling mail bags.

Last week, an Air Miles ad featuring Peter Kerry, the schoolboy who ran away to the Far East, accompanied by the caption: "Peter, we love your cheek", was condemned by the ASA after 58 complaints. A Tango ad in which a football fan's head spins across the pitch provoked 253 complaints. The ITC's verdict: too frightening for teatime. Meanwhile, a Neutralia commercial which showed a woman showering was deemed too revealing: a nipple was airbrushed out.

"What is unacceptable on a poster site could be entirely acceptable in a magazine targeting a particular audience," says Ms Alderson. The Don't Tell It commercial is shown in cinemas alongside 18-certificate films.

"British Board of Film Classification approval was needed before the ad could be shown," its copywriter, Jo Tanner, explains. "We discussed with them how many gun shots were acceptable. We re-cut the ad reducing the number of shots seen from nine to four ... although you can hear more."

An un-cut version will run in art house cinemas. Discussions are now under way to see if the ad can be shown late at night on MTV.

DON'T TELL IT commercial in which woman shoots man. The ad has been granted an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification and will be seen in selected cinemas from this week.

"It is aimed at Generation X-ers who feel tired of being patronised by advertising," says Saatchi & Saatchi art director Viv Walsh, who devised the ad with copywriter Jo Tanner. It is intended to shock, but not to offend. "I don't see why advertising should increase violence any more than a feature film."

Sara King, a stylist who has seen the ad, observes: "I was shocked, but I think that's the point. After a while, when the woman has fired so many shots into the man, it's quite funny."

Would it make her buy the magazine? "Maybe. Either way, I'll remember it."

McDONALD'S TV ad with boy and separated parents Last month the ITC revealed it received 60 complaints about an ad featuring a boy who engineers a meeting between his parents in a McDonald's restaurant. The ad gave the impression that the parents' marriage was not beyond repair. Viewers complained that the ad was exploitative and criticised it for possibly raising false hopes among children whose parents were separated.

The ITC acknowledged that featuring the issue could be regarded as "in questionable taste". But it did not uphold the complaints. Instead, it urged agencies to be more sensitive.

"Obviously we regret any offence caused. But it is an everyday situation and we are an everyday restaurant," says a spokeswoman for McDonald's.

PEPE commercial about teenage suicide. Pepe's latest advertising campaign has been criticised for glamorising suicide.

So far, the ASA has received four complaints about the material which, its critics fear, will set a bad example.

Tim Delaney, chairman and creative director of Leagas Delaney, points out that the commercial has an 18 certificate and will only be see alongside selected films. "The people we are trying to target are nihilistic, narcissistic and hedonistic - unlike those who might be offended by the ad. You cannot exhibit a film like Natural Born Killers and then not put this out."

The reaction of one cinema audience when the ad appeared: applause.

INTER-RAIL colour condom press ad.

The use of condoms by British Rail in a recent ad to attract teenage travellers was "grossly irresponsible", the ASA ruled. A dozen yellow condoms were arranged in a circle against a blue background imitating the European Union flag in the print ad. The image was accompanied by the copy: "Inter-Rail. You've got the rest of your life to be good."

But 164 people complained that it promoted promiscuity and parodied the EU flag. The complaints were upheld and the ad was withdrawn.

Mark Dove, art director at the ad agency Mellors Reay & Partners, denies it was "a one-off gratuitous stunt". "It was part of a new campaign which was subsequently dropped," he says. Because of limited funds, Inter-Rail ran the ad in national newspapers for just one day, to coincide with the European elections."