Xenophobic humour leaves bad taste

Television commercials are winning awards - but not from the viewers
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Sex, Satan and an advertisement that has been smothered with industry awards dominated the top 10 most complained-about television commercials in 1996.

The Blackcurrant Tango soft-drink advertisement, featuring the xenophobic spokesman Roy Gardner who challenges a French schoolboy to a fight because he does not like blackcurrants, made the Independent Television Commission's annual top 10 with 68 complaints.

Earlier this week the same advertisement took the top three prizes in the prestigious Creative Circle awards and has received similar accolades from industry magazines such as Marketing Week.

Viewers' complaints that the commercial would encourage violence to foreigners were dismissed by the ITC on the grounds that with television characters such as Alf Garnett and Basil Fawlty Britain had a proud tradition of xenophobic humour.

HHCL and Partners, the advertising agency that created the Tango advertisement, made it into the top 10 with another commercial for Martini. This featured a quiz show called "Get a New Face" offering cosmetic surgery to contestants so they could be good-looking enough to drink Martini. Some viewers thought the advertisement hurtful to those with facial disfigurements, and in bad taste.

"You have a young group who are getting more extreme in what they find amusing," said Rupert Howell, managing partner of HHCL. "The polarisation of society means there are others who do not, so you try not to target them." Mr Howell believes that many who complain deserve to be offended.

Satanic imagery featured in three of the top 10 - or bottom 10, depending on your point of view. The second most complained-about commercial was for the Nissan Micra. Viewers thought it was promoting the black arts by showing a girl sticking pins in a voodoo image of her boyfriend who had borrowed her Micra. Many of the 126 viewers who complained were convinced it would encourage children to experiment with voodoo while others though it offensive to Christianity.

Third on the blacklist came Nike's Euro 96 commercial - featuring football- playing beasts on a fiery pitch - 121 viewers were worried by the satanic imagery used and thought it would scare children.

Similarly satanic was an advertisement for the soft drink Irn Bru. It got into the top 10 because it featured a boy with horns and glowing eyes.

Sex also prompted the moral minority to pick up their pens. An advertisement for Hedex painkillers showed a woman becoming affectionate towards her lover - after previously turning him down - thanks to Hedex curing her headache. After receiving 73 complaints the ITC thought the commercial too explicit and moved it to after the 9pm watershed.

There was a similar problem with an advert for Addiction perfume where a couple undressed each other - too much for 83 viewers.

The most complained about advertisement of all was for a special Coronation Street video promoted by Granada as "only on video" in January 1995 - 600,000 copies were sold. Complaints flooded into the Independent Television Commission when only three months later the episode was shown on television. The ITC received 262 complaints but Granada received more than 3,000. The company was forced to apologise and to give complainants a free Coronation Street book.

Virginia Lee, the ITC's spokeswoman on advertising, says there is a steady increase every year in the number of complaints about television advertisements, but she does not believe it means that advertising agencies are trying to push against the boundaries of taste.

"Just from the first two months of 1997 I can tell we'll have even more complaints this year. I think it is a function of people starting to understand that they can complain about all sorts of things."