Platform11: Increasingly, the ASA and ITC seem to think we need protecting from our own fantasies. Oh really?

Jan Macvarish
Sunday 10 August 1997 23:02

`It's got four wheels, some seats and it is painted in different colours. The new Fiesta from Ford - a car that keeps your feet firmly on the ground." It's a far cry from the dark, gleaming monster, clinging sensually to mountainous curves, taking corners in ways you know you would never dare. But if the advertising watchdogs have their way, this will be the shape of car ads to come. Where once there was aspirational machismo, now there is only enhanced crumple zones, anti-lock braking systems and passenger airbags.

The ITC's latest condemnation of ads for the Ford Fiesta, the Nissan Almera and the VW Passat - for placing undue emphasis on speed and acceleration - is typical of the killjoy, safety-obsessed outlook it shares with the Advertising Standards Authority. It is tempting to imagine that these censors of public taste are cardigan-wearing, Morris Minor drivers who spend their weekends jotting down the registration numbers of cars parked on pavements and reporting neighbours spotted using a hosepipe during a water shortage. But the growing anti-car and anti-consumption culture unites old fogies and young Swampys alike in the form of new Labour MPs.

The Nissan Almera spoof of the classically macho cop show The Sweeney was censured for encouraging an aggressive car culture. In its condemnation, the ITC reveals a distasteful mistrust of the consumer. What the ITC fails to appreciate is that while I might fantasise about screeching around corners and whooshing through storms with spray flying from my wheels, this bears no relation to my pretty common-sense driving habits that are fuelled more by a desire for self-preservation than for motoring glory. Perhaps "as a woman" I am less at risk of being brainwashed by the essentially "masculine" culture of power and speed. But I don't believe your average male has an inferior sense of road safety as a result either of testosterone or of a "socially constructed" masculine identity. The ASA itself admits that car accidents are declining year after year, but as the cautious Nineties refrain goes, "That is no cause for complacency."

It is not just car advertising that arouses concern in the ASA and the ITC. Adverts for hunting and fishing knives that "gratuitously" employ the use of exclamation marks in extolling the particular virtues of the tool or that otherwise display an unhealthy enthusiasm for the product they promote are discouraged by the ASA. Memorably, back in 1995, the ITC banned an ad for Dime chocolate bars because it showed the comedian Harry Enfield shovelling the confection into a supermarket trolley in a way that could incite gluttony. The notion of the individual ripe for tipping over the edge by irresponsible advertising is even evident in New Labour policy. Already since 1 May we have seen panics about alcopops and cigarette advertising become enshrined in policy. The view seems increasingly common that the potentially feckless consumer needs protecting from the persuasive powers of the market, and indeed, from his or her lack of self- control.

There is a chasm of difference between the ASA's motto, "Legal, Decent and Truthful" and its ever-growing code of practice that prohibits for example, the truthful representation of those Nineties pariah products, alcohol and cigarettes. It is forbidden to show people under the age of 25 drinking alcohol, even though it is obviously true that people of this age enjoy a drink and all but the most puritanical would say that to do so is perfectly legal and decent. It is not permitted to portray drink as the social lubricant it undoubtedly is, nor is it acceptable to show how alcohol can "remove inhibitions, resolve tension or soothe agitation". Few normal people would consider throwing a party without alcohol precisely because we recognise all of these qualities as useful, yet we cannot see our lifestyles reflected in the adverts we watch in case they encourage vulnerable individuals to drink at "unsafe levels". Obviously drunks who hang around outside the off-licence opposite my flat have seen one too many Bacardi adverts - either that or they are blindly pursuing the highly desirable "Tennent's Super" lifestyle.

The whole point of advertising is to encourage our aspirations and to package our dreams and fantasies into commodities. When the advertising industry itself, in the form of the ASA, begins to get cold feet about inspiring desires and encouraging us to buy things, it seems to me revealing of a new sense of the individual as someone who cannot be relied upon to act rationally in his or her own self-interest, who needs to be taught the value of self-restraint at every opportunity.

Jan Macvarish will be speaking at `Cut! Censorship and Self Censorship', a one-day symposium as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival on Wednesday 20 August, Flodden Suite, Apex Hotel, Grassmarket, Edinburgh.

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