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Honest, legal... but decent?

An image of a woman humiliated plugs a video game, a joke about an MP's death sells stout - is there no limit to the tastelessness of advertisers? Regulators say there must be. By Meg Carter

Meg Carter
Monday 07 April 1997 00:02 BST

The young woman is half lying, half sitting up on the double bed with hands tied to the bed posts. She is wearing a short nightie and looking towards the camera with an expression of frustration (or is it fear?). "The new Game Boy pocket," the strapline beneath the picture reads. "Seriously distracting." This advertisement for Nintendo would almost certainly shock your granny, but your teenage son? Probably not. Even so, the Advertising Standards Authority, the print advertising regulator, last month asked Nintendo to withdraw the ad after it appeared in Loaded, FHM and Viz.

An ad for Pepe which recently ran in Loaded showed a middle-aged woman above the line: "Practise safe sex. Get a virgin". Previous ads included reproduction of suicide notes. The ASA ruled the latest ad irresponsible. And that despite the laddish, bawdy tastes of the majority of Loaded readers. A line in the sand is how many in the industry interpreted the authority's move. In recent months, media and advertisers alike have been nudging the boundaries: as swearing and nudity become more commonplace in some magazines, so certain advertisers follow.

The trend is being fuelled by adland's latest passion: environment. No, not the green variety but the editorial context within which the ads appear. Getting exactly the right fit between commercial and TV programme, ad and magazine has become key. It's not only a matter of reaching the right audience, it's about striking the right tone. "Advertisers have to speak in the right language to the right people at the right time," says Graham Bednash, managing partner of media strategists Michaelides & Bednash.

Advertisers are actively encouraged to tailor ads to the style and tone of the media used. "It's all about protecting our brand values and our image," says Sarah Jacombs, advertising manager of Arena, which regularly pre-vets advertising to ensure it complements the style and quality of editorial. "One recent discussion with a media buyer focused on copy - we just couldn't put the proposed ad into the magazine - it would have looked really awful. So we worked together to develop a better approach. We must be careful. It's all too easy to alienate the reader."

It is about more than looking right. Sounding right counts too. Language and tone are critical, which is why advertisers using some of the more risque media now available are falling foul of regulators despite the fact that their vocabulary and images match those being used in editorial. An ad for Guinness carried by FHM earlier this year is a case in point: the illustration showed a leather-clad man engaged in a sado-masochistic act in front of a framed picture of John Major and a bowl of oranges. The subsequent uproar prompted the ad to be withdrawn.

"Sometimes the boundaries get pushed a little too far," FHM's advertising director, James Carter, concedes. But, he insists, "we do try to be careful. While editorial can afford to be shocking, advertising can't. The ads shouldn't offend - if they do it does neither the magazine nor the brand any good." Editorial that seems shocking often has serious reasoning behind it, he claims. Even so, he admits, more and more advertisers are trying to match laddish style.

Advertisers are following, not leading the trend, Bednash believes. "Media owners are pushing it as far as they can go. People are saying 'f***', 'b******' or 's***' on TV after 11pm while naked women are used on magazine covers to boost sales. They know exactly what they are doing. And the advertising is being led by that." Advertising simply reflects what is going on, another agency insider explains. "It's ridiculous to suggest it should in some way censor what is really going on." The ASA, however, is unconvinced.

"No matter how targeted the advertisements, they must still meet the advertising standards code," says the ASA's director of communications, Caroline Crawford. When adjudicating on complaints concerning taste and decency, context is a critical factor, she admits. But that's no excuse for being offensive or socially irresponsible.

The ASA claims its discretion on that point is already evident. While it ruled against a poster for the rock band The Black Crowes' album America which featured a close-up of a woman's groin clad in skimpy stars and stripes briefs, exposing pubic hair, it allowed the same ad to appear in the music press. And although it banned a series of Club 18-30 ads, including the infamous "Beaver Espana" poster, it allowed strong versions of the campaign to appear in youth and style magazines. The authority worked closely with Club 18-30 to develop the campaign further within the spirit of the code. "It wasn't a matter of toning down the campaign. It was about being more selective about what was said in which medium and when," claims James Griffiths, account director for Club 18-30 at Saatchi & Saatchi.

However, the rise of men's magazines like FHM - currently the UK's fastest growing title with sales exceeding 365,300 - presents a new problem: responsibility. "The code agreed by the advertising industry sets down that ads should be prepared with responsibility to the consumer and society," Caroline Crawford explains. The Nintendo ad may not have caused widespread offence, but it was deemed irresponsible for suggesting the woman was being "subjugated and humiliated", the authority ruled. The ASA was also worried that the expression on her face could be interpreted as fear.

"With some campaigns touching taboo areas, such as rape, people are starting to feel uncomfortable. Humour or a tongue-in-cheek approach don't get round this," she adds. "The ASA now receives enough complaints to suggest that it is a cause for concern amongst these magazines' readers, even if the nature of the editorial pages might suggest otherwise."

Typically, agency creatives condemn the authority's stance. "Why should it be up to a quango to decide what is and what is not acceptable?" grumbles one. "It is the media owner that best knows and understands the requirements and preferences of its particular audience. The truth is you are never going to tailor an ad for one particular group - such as young men - that is universally acceptable and appealing to everyone else."

Crispin Reed, account director for Nintendo at Leo Burnett, adds: "When you look at [our] ad in the context of the environment it appeared in, it's exactly in keeping with the editorial pages which, I would say, go further than we did. The nature of the complaints misinterpreted our intent - to show the woman as frustrated, not terrified."

Undoubtedly, the ASA's growing focus on "responsible advertising" poses a tricky challenge. By ruling on what is and what is not responsible it is placing itself in the position of moral arbiter - a role likely get even tougher with continued media growth and audience fragmentation. A tough job ... but someone's got to do it.

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