Last summer, I met transgendered persons protesting about BBC warhorse Jenni Murray speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival. They told me that she should not be allowed to speak because in an article in The Sunday Times she’d written that transgendered men were not really women. According to them, she had to be denied free speech because her words had, ‘created a climate in which physical harm may be done.’
For them the expression of ideas they didn’t like amounted to a physical assault. That kind of thinking is not just for the fringes of literary festivals, it’s about to go mainstream and reach right into our homes.
On Tuesday 18th July, Guy Parker, Chief Executive of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), told the BBC Today Programme that he wants to stop commercials of all kinds ‘which can contribute to harm.’
Not images showing violence against women, soft porn, too much naked bottom advertising shower gel or lissom girls lying in fields sucking chocolate flake, but who is seen to do the washing up at home. The aptly named Parker actually told the BBC that there is evidence from a new ASA report, ‘Depictions, Perceptions and Harm,’ that adverts showing women tidying up at home, ‘Can lead to ‘harms.’’ Not even ‘harm,’ this time, it is now ‘harms.’
He wants his business, which let’s not forget is usually about selling rather than preaching, to start defining standards of domestic life to, ‘Signal what’s OK and what’s not OK.’
He told the BBC that ‘adverts showing gender stereo roles might be banned, especially on the grounds of different gender characteristics. Gender stereotyping can lead to really bad outcomes.’
Like the transgendered ones I’d met in Oxford, he was suggesting that the expression of certain ideas, even in ephemera like 15 second TV ads could create the atmosphere for harm.
It is true that advertising used to be sexist. Beautiful female bodies sell goods effectively. Feminists long ago pointed out that women’s bodies are often a commodity too. Women are still meant to be decorative as well as useful around the home. Parker had a good point when he said, gender stereotyping can lead to a ‘narrower sense of the roles we should aspire to in life.’ We do want more girls taking maths and science and becoming engineers. But he and the ASA are going into gender specification.
Parker said he wants to see an end to, ‘Ads that mock boys and men.’ He didn’t say which they are but there was one for an oven-cleaner in 2009 showing a man cleaning the oven, with the words, ‘So easy even a man can do it.’
That kind of irony is obviously now seen as poisonous and ‘can contribute to harm.’
‘Harm,’ that key word again, which is so usefully imprecise in this context. He doesn’t want ads to show men being mocked for showing their emotions or praised for being strong, keying in to what has been called the ‘feminisation’ of our culture and is now about moving any reference to distinct sexual difference.
The puzzle is why the hardest business in the world (advertising is about selling goods to people who don’t know they want them) has decided to take on the role of social engineers. Times have certainly changed since it was all too easy to meet happy advertising men rolling around the streets of Soho, pockets stuffed with £20 notes used for snorting cocaine down in the loos of the Groucho Club. Thirty years ago they seemed to party all night and work all day thinking up endless eccentric and amusing ideas, such as the Carling Black Label spoof black and white film showing a German soldier acting as a goalie on the Eider dam, catching and saving British bouncing bombs, or George the Hofmeister Bear, an ad directed by Orson Welles, and in 1985 the very male Nick Kamen in his underpants waiting for his Levi 501s to dry.
Those witty, careless times are far behind us, and also the lavish money that funded them. It’s not an accident that TV ads in the 1980s, could last over a minute. We are now into more priggish times and Parker’s platitudes show the advertising world jumping on a global bandwagon.
In June, UN Women in partnership with Unilever, Facebook, Google, Mars and Microsoft, announced the launch of the ‘Unstereotype Alliance.’ This is a new global movement to banish stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising and all brand-led content. Whether this will really help the oppressed illiterate women in South East Asia and Africa, and the burka-bound mothers of the Middle East is open to question. There were adverts in India ten years ago trying to get mothers to feed their daughters as well as their sons. But in the average British living room most women do not feel oppressed and most men do not want to be seen as oppressors or reminded they should be doing the clearing up.
It will be interesting to see how far this bandwagon of virtue takes the ASA because if western women see ads showing men doing the domestic chores they should do, they will probably laugh at the idiocy of it and switch off. Journalist Celia Walden recently pointed out that ads showing women shaving off their 5 o’clock shadow and men breast feeding won’t lead to much viewer recognition and won’t sell anything.
It’s not the place of priggish advertisers to tell us how to live, and they have never tried to, before apart from telling us that we should own more stuff and have better sheds to put it in. In Britain, since it all started with Gibbs SR on September 22nd, 1955, we’ve never had to look to TV ads for our moral compass. There were once some Guardian ads telling us to ‘think differently’ about what might lie behind clichéd images, offering to widen our minds by way of its paper, but what ads used to give us in the past was a dollop of irony, national catch phrases and a lot of fun.
Terry Wogan made a career out of ridiculing them, although he took a rather Philistine view of ads based on the work of Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier, suggesting that too many layers of meaning could obscure the actual product being sold.
Before they start telling us who should tidy the sofa cushions, the ad men, I still unrepentantly see them as mostly men, might take note of the public’s boredom with what they now do. We’ve still got the meercats but witty, piquant representations of life as it is lived in the UK have disappeared, replaced by fifteen-second pitches showing multi-racial families eating pizza, old men carefully testing reclining chairs with the help of an officious person with a clip board, and garden shears walking out of sheds. None of them requiring any lines of dialogue.
In the days of the 60-second saga, such as the Cointreau ads, ‘The Ice Melts,’ it was common to hear people say the ads were better than the programmes. One popular one, in 1985, for Cadbury’s crème eggs, had the whimsical and slightly suggestive little slogan: ‘How do you eat yours?’
In 2017 the answer to that is: ‘I don’t anymore, thanks.’ Sales of the gooey treat slipped down the sink by £6 million after its new US owner, Mondelez, replaced Dairy Milk with cheaper chocolate.
A certain level of quality sells, fall below that and you are in trouble. If the new sober-sided ad men, dressed like Mormons, working for our moral good by subliminally signalling how we should live, forget that and restrict us too much in case humour does us ‘harm,’ they will get egg all over their Puritan faces and clean shirt fronts, requiring many packets of new energy, whiter and brighter Daz to get it off.