A naked man and woman tower over the road, sitting arms and legs entwined, reading books. The poster, for the bookseller Bol.com, is to be seen in cities across the country, and has no doubt distracted countless drivers mid-manoeuvre. It is probably dangerous. But is it offensive?
The Advertising Standards Authority says not. But it cited the poster as the most fiercely complained against last year - 319 people wrote in saying the image was pornographic, gratuitous and unsuitable for children - but decided it was, ultimately, "not pornographic because the couple were clearly reading their books and not engaged in a sexual act".
The top 10 complaints about advertisements in 1999 are listed in the authority's annual report, published today. It also states that last year there was a 32 per cent increase in complaints about posters.
Advertising executives say the reason for the rise is simple: an explosion in the imaginative use of billboards for "impact" advertising. Mark Robinson, of J Walter Thompson, said: "The dot.com companies are leading the way. Not only do they have very creative ads, but they are also taking advantage of a big increase in the number of sites. The most recent trend is for temporary sites, for example, where building work is being carried out."
The posters for the Austin Powers film The Spy Who Shagged Me might not have been breaking new ground creatively, but they did reach a lot of people - 310 of them complained, unsuccessfully, to the authority about the use of the word shag, and thousands more went to see the film.
Third on the authority's list was a series of four posters dreamed up to promote the television show of the American shock-jock Howard Stern, which used slogans such as "It's OK for a man to commit adultery if his wife is ugly" and "I like animals as much as the next guy but if I am hungry I will eat a panda sandwich". The 238 complaints against the campaign were largely upheld.
Of the poster explosion, Nicola Mendelsohn, of the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, said: "The poster industry has reinvented itself in the past few years. The sorts of sites are changing rapidly. At bus stops, for instance, you have fantastic back-lit sites, many of which are being negotiated in return for putting up a new bus shelter."
Iain McLellan, of the Outdoor Advertising Association, says there has been phenomenal growth in the poster business in the first quarter of this year. The amount spent, he says, is likely to be about £93m, an increase of 20 per cent from early 1999.
Another reason for the increase is the big American advertising companies More O-Ferrall and TDI, which have taken over smaller British firms. Even if internet advertising takes a dive, the greater sophistication of the poster industry is, according to experts, likely to be undimmed. The public can expect more huge back-lit billboards along highways, making naked book-reading couples as unmissable at night as they are during the day.
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