ASA rule against ghd
Hairs and graces
Heaven forbid, but the commercial prompted 23 complaints to ‘flood’ into the ASA. Numbered amongst those was one from the Archdeacon of Liverpool who wrote to correct a clear wrong, or is that tong?
In many ways it is not surprising that the heady mix of religious and sexual references featured in this film attracted the odd complaint. The big surprise was what happened next. The ASA upheld them.
This was particularly unexpected in that the campaign theme ‘a new religion for hair’ had been running for the past seven years. In addition, the ASA had refused to uphold a complaint against a previous ghd ad that used the line ‘thou shalt convert’ on the grounds it was unlikely to cause offence.
Perhaps this time the eminence of the complainants made a difference; the fact that the Archdeacon was amongst them was specifically mentioned in the adjudication (it is unusual to identify those who complain.)
A clear signal
But the ASA sent a clear signal to ghd; thou must not run the ad again. “The ASA acknowledged that ghd had been using the phrase ‘a new religion for hair’ in their marketing for the past seven years,” read their assessment. “We considered that ghd’s use of the word ‘religion’ in that context did not mock faith or belief, but was intended to refer in the wider sense to an interest or hobby followed with devotion.
“We noted, however, that the women in the ads appeared to be in prayer, their hands were clasped and they were looking upwards towards the sky. One was holding a votive candle and another a set of beads that resembled rosary beads. We also noted the images of the women in their bedrooms, some of them in their underwear and others on their beds, were presented in a way that could be seen as erotic.
“We considered that the style of the letter ‘t’ in the word ‘thy’ closely resembled the Cross of Jesus. We considered the phrase ‘thy will be done’ from the Lord’s Prayer and the image of the Cross were likely to have particular significance to members of the Christian faith.
“We concluded that the eroticised images of women apparently in prayer, in conjunction with religious symbols were likely to cause serious offence.
“The ads breached CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rule 6.1 (Offence). The ads must not be shown again in their current form.”
In many ways this is a different row to the usual ASA controversies; where the likes of RyanAir or Club 18-30 seem to enjoy deliberately baiting the organisation in order to benefit from any subsequent publicity.
The widespread surprise in this ruling being upheld has its roots in the fact that this sort of Christian imagery is common in advertising. Perhaps we are seeing the dawn of a new, less tolerant era, where it will become unthinkable to use Christianity in advertising in the same way it is unthinkable to use erotic or ironic references to Islam.
Robert Harwood-Mathews, chief executive of TBWA, disagrees, and implies that this is more about the priorities of a political elite, than the tastes of the country at large.
“We certainly did not set out to offend anyone of any faith with the campaign,” he said: “It is a beautiful ad that is intended to show personal reflection and the devotion that ghd arouses.
“But we need to maintain a dialogue with the ASA and be public about it if we think they are ‘showboating’ or being unduly harsh. This kind of debate is healthy and it is evident a lot of people disagree with them on this one Interestingly, I think consumers themselves will steer things. Traffic is driven online, blogs discuss it and there’s even an ‘un-ban-the-ghd-ads’ group emerging on facebook.”
And we wonder who started that, Robert. But he is right to suggest that many disagree with the ruling – including apparently – Clearcast, the body that pre-approves TV commercial copy. In a submission to the ASA, they justified why they had cleared the original ad saying, in their view, it would not cause widespread offence.
And in fairness that is the view of many in the advertising industry. Said Simon Sinclair, head of chaos at Pravda: “Even speaking as a committed God botherer I don’t find the film particularly offensive, especially when there’s so much else for the Church to get worked up about.
“It seems advertising is quickly becoming the last bastion of the puritan. It’s stuck in the age when BBC presenters wore evening dress and actors were asked to keep one foot on the floor when simulating sex.
“Sensitive souls will see plenty more to offend them either side of the ad break – the Vicar of Dibley, the Last Temptation of Christ, the Life of Brian…
“The rules of advertising no longer seem to reflect programme content or the expectations of the viewer. Of course, it can be said (and often is) that the rules should be different for those seeking to sell products by being offensive. But perhaps those matters of conscience should be between the advertiser and his customer. He who offends is damned to sell no curlers or hair tongs for all eternity!”
Jacqui Lennon, managing director at WAA, argues the ASA has also lost sight of how the key target audience – young women - might see the commercials.
“It’s a shame the ASA have reacted in this way,” she says: “This campaign was the evolution of a long-used line and showed great insight into the female psyche.
“The whole ritual of getting ready to go out is sacrosanct to us girls and this campaign cleverly captured the seriousness of a particular female behaviour.
“I find it frustrating that a well-executed campaign has been lambasted due to a tiny number of complaints when it is obvious to the overwhelming majority it was just a fun and creative dramatisation of an everday female ritual.
“Of course the ASA’s job is to listen – whether a complaint is from one, 23 or 2,000; but in this case perspective has been lost.”
Bums on pews
However, others argue that ghd were sailing too close to the wind. Says Big Communications creative director, Craig Buzzel: “My feeling is that is best to steer clear of any religious themes unless your’re in the direct business of putting bums on pews. The reason is that you know God-fearing folk are going to get a bit narked off about it. So if you are going to go ahead and do it, and even if the clearance committee clear it, you still shouldn’t be too surprised when the Archdeacon of Liverpool throws a hissy-fit and the ASA ultimately tell you to pull your ad.
“But it was a shame the ghd work, which was really nice, ended up being pulled on the basis of so few complaints from disgruntled dogmatics.”
Steve Hall, group executive creative director at Bray Leino agrees: “You always have to be cautious when it comes to anything related to religion.
Clearly it depends on the work, and what it is trying to say. But it is almost inevitable that you will be inviting criticism as soon as you go into this area. Personally, I thought the ghd ad was good, which does make this ban all the more of a shame.”
The case does reflect the fact that few believe the ASA as an organisation is perfect. In fact, because its rulings are applied by advertisers and media owners on a voluntary basis others claim it is toothless. However, the ASA is the lesser of two evils. The alternative to its system of self regulation is government legislation, which is why most in the industry tend to abide by its rulings.
But there seems little doubt that the UK is becoming a more puritanical society in some respects, and advertising through the offices of the ASA, may be forced to reflect that. Work which was acceptable a few years ago might have difficulty shrugging off complaints now; which is why it might be interesting to see what would happen if the Archdeacon of Liverpool started objecting to other parts of the ghd campaign.
But new creative director at BJL, Billy Mawhinney, says creatives can stay on the right side of the regulations by applying a simple rule: “Don’t make anything you wouldn’t show to your own mother.”
But perhaps the last word here should go to one Nicola David, formerly of Propaganda, who left this message on The Drum website: “Imagine, being a lead writer on the ghd account AND a practicing Christian. (ME).”