A mobile phone advertisement featuring an illustration of Jesus winking and giving a thumbs-up has been banned
by the Advertising Standards Authority
(ASA). This isn't the first time the ASA has adjudicated on religious matters and I think it's wrong that they do. Generally speaking, the ASA should only regulate ads that are misleading or deceptive to consumers, but thanks to powers bestowed upon them through the CAP Code
(which they didn't write), they have assumed the roles of pope/imam in British society. To better understand what I'm on about, take a look at Clause 5.1
from the Code about Decency, which states that ads:
"should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability. Compliance with the Code will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards of decency"
I think the ASA should not have the power to decide what is or isn't offensive to me on any of those grounds but even if you thought they did, alarm bells should start ringing when ads are banned on the basis of a dozen or a few dozen complaints, rather than the necessary threshold that the ad "is likely to cause serious or widespread offence
" (emphasis mine). In the case of the mobile phone advertisement mentioned above, the ASA investigated the matter after receiving... wait for it, 98 complaints! But if you thought that was bad enough, consider the case of a magazine ad
for Antonio Federici ice cream exactly a year ago that was banned after 10(!) complaints were received. Why? Let the ASA explain for themselves:
"We considered the use of a nun pregnant through immaculate conception was likely to be seen as a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics. We concluded that to use such an image in a light hearted way to advertise ice cream was likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith. We noted that the number of complaints was relatively small but that the ad had been placed in a small number of publications only. The ad breached CAP Code clause 5.1 (Decency). The ad must not appear again in its current form."
Now I don't know about you but I think the ASA has no business banning ads just because it thinks, for whatever reason, the ad would cause serious offence to the entire Roman Catholic community. But it also seems obvious that even if you did think it was their business, the number of complaints makes little or no difference to the people deciding on such matters. They are both judge and jury on matters that hardly concern them.
Such moral policing is common in countries we deplore for a lack of free speech but it seems to me that even at home, there's one rule for advertising and one rule for the press. What's the press got to do with this? Well consider the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed
from 2005. It seems obvious to me that had the cartoons been printed as part of an advert, they would've been banned by the ASA. Similarly, had the mobile phone or ice-cream adverts mentioned above been depicted in the form of a newspaper cartoon, it seems highly unlikely that they would've been banned. Now I can understand there's a difference between newspapers and advertisements, as the former seeks to inform and the other seeks to sell (although with the popularity of tabloids there are shortcomings in that assumption). Therefore it could be argued that from a starting point of free speech, a higher degree of regulation is necessary for ads, and I'll agree with that. But the question is at what point should that regulation end? Should the ASA, which derives its powers through parliamentary legislation, be able to in the first place adjudicate on, for example, religious matters? If yes, to what extent should they be able to do so? If clause 5.1 clearly states the ad should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, should the number of complaints play a bigger role in reaching a conclusion? Should the ASA have so much unfettered discretion in reaching its decisions on such matters? You know where I stand.