The Clearance team were recently asked whether we’d still approve a 35 year old ad for Philips video players, written by Griff Rhys-Jones and also featuring his ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ sidekick, Mel Smith. You can listen to the ad here. The agency wanted to know if we thought the ad would offend listeners.
The use of the stereotype about Japanese people substituting ‘rs’ for ‘ls’ when they’re speaking English feels a bit dated, but the question for us was whether the ad is in breach of the Code rule prohibiting ads that could ‘cause grave or widespread offence’. A further Code rule says that ads ‘must not condone or encourage harmful discriminatory behaviour or treatment’. On the face of it this ad is just a gentle dig at expert know-alls everywhere, but we were mindful of a complaint that had been upheld several years ago against an ad featuring a man speaking to his boss who responded angrily and loudly in German, and a voice over saying ‘Boss a bit of a tyrant?’ The ASA said that the ad reinforced an outdated racial stereotype. We thought this was a tough ruling at the time because the tone of the ad was clearly humorous and Germans aren’t a group that have historically been discriminated against in this country. We have always been more concerned about the use of, say, exaggerated Asian accents.
However, people are rightly more sensitive to the issue of racial stereotyping today than 35 years ago and the ASA now offers some helpful online guidance to steer us in this area. They say that, ‘Light-hearted ads might be acceptable but even mild humour revolving around racial stereotypes has the potential to seriously offend’ and that ‘The tone of the marketing communication is extremely important: aggressive, confrontational or non-humorous approaches are likely to cause serious or widespread offence’. More generally, the ASA add that ‘Marketers should remember that society’s tolerance changes over time and can sometimes be influenced by events outside their control, such as current affairs’. It’s clearly in its favour that the overall tone of this ad is not in any was aggressive, but it does involve ‘mild humour’. We think it’s helpful that the ad doesn’t feature a Japanese person speaking and that the humour is really at the expense of the smug shop owner. The effect isn’t in our view to belittle Japanese people.
We felt that on balance this ad fell short of being likely to cause grave or widespread offence, but it always feels a bit uncomfortable making this kind of decision; four people sitting comfortably in London ruling on what is and isn’t going to offend radio listeners. We need to be careful about crushing the life out of advertising. On the other hand, it can be argued that by making these decisions, whether it’s about matters of offence or whether an ad’s misleading, in a careful and considered way we’re helping to maintain the high levels of trust that listeners continue to have in commercial radio. Do you agree? We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this ad or on offensiveness in advertising at firstname.lastname@example.org .