The 18-30 ads that went all the way

Those posters . . . Ian Parker explains why the advertising watchdog took so long to ban a smutty campaign for holidays

Ian Parker
Sunday 26 February 1995 00:02 GMT

A CHEERFUL, smutty advertising campaign seems to have made a nonsense of industry regulations designed to protect consumers from offence. Last week, it emerged that posters promoting Club 18-30 holidays had been banned by the industry's self-regulating body, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). But it also emerged that the ban had taken effect on the very day the campaign was due to end, six weeks after it had been launched.

The appearance of the ads, and their eventual fate, provides some kind of education in modern advertising - and points to the apparent ineffectiveness of the ASA: last week, even the managing director of Club 18-30 was arguing for the ASA to be given resources and powers that would allow it to act more effectively. "They are there to safeguard public morals and decency," said Jeremy Muller, "but under the current system they cannot make that happen."

Mr Muller's Club 18-30 sells dauntingly action-packed Mediterranean package holidays to customers who are, in fact, rarely over 24. Last year, 70,000 bought holidays, and joined a clientele that has served - for much of the 30-year history of the company - as a feature-writer's easy shorthand for boys behaving badly abroad. The new posters strode up to the stereotype, and shook it by the hand: "You get two weeks for being drunk and disorderly"; and "Beaver Espana"; and - with a picture of a man in boxer shorts - "Girls. Can we interest you in a package holiday?"

This was something of a re-emergence. Club 18-30's original parent company collapsed four years ago, and Jeremy Muller ("44 going on 29") organised a management relaunch. For three years, though, under rules laid down by the Association of British Travel Agents, the name Club 18-30 could not be used: and the company traded as The Club Holidays.

Last summer, Muller got his name back, and was ready to "shout from the rooftops". Seven advertising agencies were invited to pitch for Club 18- 30's fairly modest budget of £500,000. Some did not get the point: "Nice pictures of people eating lobsters", says Muller; and some seemed over- excited: when Muller visited one company, "the receptionists were all wearing Hawaiian shirts, there was a complete beach, two tons of sand, deck chairs..."

Saatchi & Saatchi showed the posters we have now seen, and other ones that Muller decided were probably not acceptable (but whose copy lines he sadly will not reveal). And against some modest internal opposition, Muller went with Saatchis. "Some of my colleagues said, `Look, we're just going back 10 years to the lager-lout image that Club 18-30 enjoyed all through the Eighties,' and I said, `Well, that never was bad news. We all used to make a lot of money as a result.' I'm determined that we should no longer shy away from all those activities that do take place on our holidays. We're coming out. We've come out."

Chris Clark, who ran the campaign at Saatchis, says, "We only wanted the account if we could do the sort of advertising we wanted to do. Big agencies sometimes take on small accounts on the basis of doing what we would call `breakthrough' advertising - stuff that gets not only them noticed but that gets us noticed as well. We produced a campaign that we felt was not just creative, but was very much the right thing for us. We wouldn't have done safe 1990s advertising for them because it's not an economically viable account. Unless you can do something that's going to make us famous, there's not much of a role for us."

Did he think the campaign would be banned? "We hoped it would get talked about." Asked the same question, Jeremy Muller says, "We were certainly aware that one or two of the treatments would raise an eyebrow or two." Both men admit that they knew "Beaver Espana", for instance, could be described as indecent, in apparent contravention of ASA guidelines. "Of course it's not decent," says Muller.

Here is the beauty of the campaign: the ads do their traditional work as ads - through wit and sex - but the surrounding press attention (there has been a great deal) both promotes Saatchi & Saatchi's clever young copywriters, and reinforces the image of Club 18-30 as youthfully disrespectful and irresponsible. In the recent controversial Benetton poster campaigns, a discrepancy emerged between what suited the advertising "creatives" and what suited the shops - this was never going to be a problem here.

With this campaign, agency and client could be fairly confident that the ASA would not interfere before the posters had had some effect. The ASA does not preview non-broadcast advertisements (tobacco ads aside); and they react to existing ads only in response to complaints - not on its own initiative.

The ASA acts when an advertisment has caused "widespread" offence. With a poster campaign, offence is unlikely to be as "widespread" as with other media, especially if - as was the case here - they are first kept out of London, and away from the capital-bound national news media. The compaints started as a "trickle", says the ASA's Graham Fowler, although by the end had exceeded 400.

Understandably, the ASA does not want to run ahead of public opinion. "We're not a moral arbiter," says Fowler, contradicting an assumption made by many. "If the system's not to start interfering with commerical freedoms, and if it's not to start interfering with the public's right to chose what they consider offensive, it's got to have that latitude. It's not a perfect system." When the volume of complaints against the Club 18-30 ads eventually started building, the adjudication process was, allegedly, "fast-tracked".

Client and agency insist - plausibly - that there was no master plan here; but the campaign could not have worked out better: there was shock, but not enough shock to put the campaign immediately out of business. The campaign ran its full course, and indeed was extended for two weeks - when it appeared in London for the first time. Bookings came in: they are up 30 per cent from last year. Eventually, six weeks after the posters first appeared, the ASA "got arsey" - in Mr Clark's words - and wrote to both agency and client asking for the advertisements to be removed. This was on 15 February, which was the day the campaign was due to end (a fact that Clark had not passed on to the ASA).

What will Club 18-30 do next? If his client ever needs them, Chris Clark has plans for television commercials that make, he hints, some clever circumnavigation of strict rules about alcohol in advertising. A poster ad that mocked those who had complained about "Beaver Espana", and the rest, has been abandoned - once the ASA has ruled against ads in a campaign, all future ads in the series must first be approved by the ASA.

This seems to be the extent of the ASA's powers. It is also anadman's death penalty: banned ads aren't elegible for most of the industry's awards ceremonies.

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