Jeremy Lee on Advertising

The former Campaign deputy editor Jeremy Lee gives us the inside track on the stories that have got the ad industry talking.

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The ad industry must stand firm against the moral outrage brigade

It’s revealing that the Advertising Standards Authority only upheld one complaint in its list of the top 10 most complained about ads of 2015.

While Mother‘s ‘Epic Strut’ spot for Moneysupermarket topped the league with over 1500 complaints and accusations that it was overtly sexual, Omega Pharma was the only advertiser to fall foul of ASA rules. The watchdog found that the ad "presented an irresponsible approach to body image and confidence" and banned it following 136 complaints.

The rest on the list was made of brands that had variously been accused of being 'graphic and gruesome' – a campaign for Public Health England that by necessity needed to be – or, believe it or not, revealing that Father Christmas didn’t really exist (Crispin Porter &  Bogusky’s PayPal campaign).

The Booking.com campaign by Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, which uses a rather puerile play on the word ‘booking’, also escaped censure; maybe if it had been judged by the Chortle Awards jury the findings would have been rather different.

In an age where complaining or confecting and inflating a sense of outrage has never been easier, it’s likely that the ASA will continue to see more specious complaints about advertising campaigns, distracting from its main role in policing misleading claims.

For advertising, the implications of the new age of moral outrage and paradoxical intolerance, where students demand 'safe spaces' and 'no platform' people whose views might differ from their own (among the most ludicrous were recent campaigns to ban Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell for alleged transphobia), could be profound. There is the serious risk that they could impinge upon creative freedom as advertisers and agencies retreat into their own safe spaces, fearful of attracting social media-fuelled opprobrium.

Equally, while it's unlikely that we’ll see the historical relativism that have led to calls for memorials to the (historically significant) imperialist Cecil Rhodes to be erased from history Palmyra-style, those same voices would be quick to jump on David Ogilvy’s famous "the customer is not a moron, she’s your wife" line if repeated, demanding reparation or a public display or sackcloth and ashes.

Currently the industry is – rightly – making a lot of noise about diversity. While few would disagree that making it more representative can only be a good thing, the cynic in me suspects that some of those belated arrivals are jumping on what they see as a passing bandwagon or business opportunity rather than a deeper commitment to the cause.

Either way it’s a laudable goal, even if the very public hand-wringing is in danger of looking like a game of one-upmanship or virtue signalling that no one wants to see and could end up being as pointless and lacking in meaning as those same complainants to the ASA. Hopefully some resolution can be found and the advertising industry can get back to what it’s best at – shifting product to you and your life partner.

Follow Jeremy Lee on Twitter @jezzalee

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