Just as we were celebrating the end of the ridiculous blasphemy law, this came along. The Advertising Standards Agency has ruled to ban a television advert for curling tongs on the grounds or religious offence. The ad in question, for ghd, features a number of scantily-clad women doing their hair while praying that their fabulous new look will make other women jealous, get the man of their dreams, or fulfil their other stereotypically shallow Hello! magazine-style desires.
I don't watch that much TV, so I hadn't seen the ad. But apparently it had been fairly widely screened. A total of 23 people protested on grounds of religious offence. One of them was an archdeacon, who really should know better. Anyway, without further ado, here it is (unless it's been taken down since I posted this):
Said the mortally-offended archdeacon, Ricky Pointer,
It seemed to me the advertisement crossed a line. I felt very uncomfortable with it. It was targeting the Lord’s Prayer and I felt it was taking the mick. This is not about censorship or about being prudish. It is simply about every individual’s right to signal when they think a line has been crossed.
On the contrary, your Venerableness. It is entirely about censorship and being prudish. But while Pointer and his fellow offendees do indeed have every right to complain to the relevant authorities about anything they like, that doesn't mean that the ASA have any obligation to take them seriously.
It's hard to know what the ASA were thinking of. Their remit is to disallow adverts that cause "serious or widespread offence". I suppose the advert might be considered offensive on grounds of sexism, but religion? With only 23 people bothering to complain, the offence was clearly not widespread. Was it serious? Complainants made much of the fact that the letter "t" in the ads looked a bit like a Christian cross. The advertising agency claimed, with the disingenuousness and pusillanimity that invariably infects companies seeking to justify themselves before tribunals, that this design was merely a "typographic style" that was "in keeping with the style of the current brand campaign". They would have been better advised to take the critics head-on. Of COURSE it looks like a Christian cross. So what? The style they were using is Gothic. Gothic styling draws on medieval religious iconography. It's everywhere. Get over it.
Serious offence? I don't think so.
The other ground of complaint was the phrase "thy will be done". This, the ASA agreed, was, along with the cross, "likely to have particular significance to members of the Christian faith." It's in the Lord's Prayer, after all. (What else could they have used? So mote it be?) Together with the "eroticised images of women apparently in prayer" this was enough to make the ad "likely to cause serious offence".
The whole adjudication was couched in humourless, deadpan prose designed to reassure anyone reading that this is all terribly serious. For example:
The ASA acknowledged that ghd had been using the phrase "a new religion for hair" in their marketing for the past seven years. 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 was holding 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 to be erotic.
Perhaps they should take a look at Bernini's the Ecstasy of St Theresa.
That religious imagery still has sufficient recognition in a secular society is something that Christians ought to be pleased about. It gives them their own marketing opportunity, if they only trouble to take it. Instead of which, they constantly dumb down their brand, strip out the mystery, purge their liturgies of difficult words and beautiful language, and then complain when someone else takes up the slack.
I'm having a hard time trying to work out precisely what sort of jelly-brained believer is likely to be "seriously offended" by these images. Or why indeed the ASA thinks it part of its remit to indulge them. But, ridiculous as it is, this ruling is particularly alarming for two reasons. Firstly, the ad campaign had already been cleared, by the body responsible Clearcast, who seem to have investigated it very closely and did not find it to be offensive. Indeed, as they pointed out in their submission to the ASA, ghd had been using religious imagery to sell their hair-styling products for seven years, without attracting censure:
Clearcast said they had taken a lot of factors into consideration before clearing the ads; they had considered the precedent, heritage, tone, previous investigations and possible offence at script stage and when viewing the finished ads. They said, although 23 people had objected to the ads, they were satisfied they had prevented anything being broadcast that would cause widespread offence.
Pre-censorship of this kind is troubling in itself, because it implies a good deal of second-guessing. The result, especially in today's climate of acute sensitivity, is likely to embrace a stultifying degree of caution. This decision is likely to cause the already conservative Clearcast to become even more restrictive in future.
Just a few weeks ago, the London Underground banned a sixteenth-century painting on grounds of nudity and a poster featuring a man in boxer-shorts advertising a play entitled Fat Christ. The fact that these daft decisions were, after public derision, altered does not mean that the safety-first bureaucratic mindset that produced them is likely to go away.
The second reason for alarm is that previous campaigns in the series had been approved by the ASA. There might be reasons to believe that this particular campaign went "further" than the earlier ones, but it evidently didn't go much further. The suspicion has to be that the climate is becoming more restrictive. Despite what looks like the major setback of the end of the blasphemy law, religious offence-takers have wind in their sails. They feel, for the first time in decades, that the world is moving their way. The small minority of those sufficiently motivated to make a fuss can get their way because of caution, the doctrine of "respect" and desire for a quiet life on the part of regulators, who increasingly have the dangerous power to censor in advance. Today it's curling tongs. What will it be tomorrow?