Less a story of moral panic and censorship wrapped up as a fight against gender stereotyping – though it’s definitely that too – and more a prime example of how the BBC will manipulate news reports to fit their own agenda, yesterday’s tale of outrage over a poster for air conditioning is a fascinating case study.
The basic facts: Not Just Cooling boss Lee Davies spotted an ad in the US and thought it would be just the thing to give an eye-catching and cheeky slant to air conditioning advertising, which – even in the current heatwave – is not the sexiest of things. “Your wife is HOT!” shouts the poster, next to a photo of a blonde woman in sunglasses, a white t-shirt and denim shorts. Ho ho ho, the spirit of the Carry On film is not dead. Though perhaps the sense of humour that made those films so popular is.
The BBC report calls the billboard a ‘banned ad’, which is technically true, but stretching the facts somewhat (for now, at least). The ad had indeed been refused by the company responsible for bus advertising, but they are not any sort of authority. The story then goes on to say – in the second sentence – that the ad has been described as “plain sexist” by ‘an academic’.
Now, you and I know that any old fool can become an academic – just look at the lunatic fringe of identity politics and you’ll find hundreds of crazies with academic credentials. But the fact that they have used the title to describe the sole complainant (and it’s not sure that she had even complained before the BBC came calling) – a professor Carrie Paechter, who we have no reason to believe is a fool but is the director of the official sounding (but probably not at all official) Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families – is telling, as many people will assume that she has some expertise in the subject and so her opinion carries more weight than, say Mr Davies’. Davies, needless to say, does not agree that this is “a foolish advert and it needs to come down”.
The complaints of Paechter and two staff members from a nearby school are the usual combination of old-fashioned prudishness and new-fangled politics. Sexually provocative advertising is both unsettling to those who want to keep sex in the shadows and angry feminists who want to shut down any level of sexual expression – at least those aimed at male audiences. Something as obviously and provocatively old school sexy as this ad was always going to rile up both groups.
Praechter commented “If I had young children, I wouldn’t want them passing that on the way to school, because of the messages it gives them about society.” Some people might think that young children might not even pay attention to the poster (and that Praechter might know that if she actually had children), and the BBC are quick to point out that although the ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad that caused contrived outrage last year was inconveniently found not offensive by the Advertising Standards Authority (who, we must continually point out, have no legal standing whatsoever), but that the rules have changed – and yes, the ASA have new rules regarding ‘gender stereotyping’. How this poster enforces stereotypes is hard to say – it’s not showing women in the kitchen or men as useless slobs after all, and surely wives are as allowed to be ‘hot’ as anyone else.. But I have no doubt that the ASA will condemn this ad in due course. They’ll find a way, and no one will question it.
Davies has suggested running a ‘hot husband’ ad to counter ideas of sexism, but he’s probably missing the main point of the complaints. Praechter comments that “it gives the subliminal message that it’s the man of the house that’s responsible for getting the air conditioner fixed” while the other complainants that the BBC have sought out comment that “to say ‘Your Wife is Hot’ is aiming it at men” and “it’s aimed at men but anyone can buy dirt conditioning.” But this seems to assume that only men can have a wife, and of course, that’s not been the case for some time. Women too might well have a hot wife. and if they – or anyone else – find the ad offensive, then market forces will punish Not Just Cooling – we don’t need censorship to make advertising ineffectual.
At the time of writing, the ASA have received exactly two complaints. Doubtless, the BBC coverage will bring more, which I imagine was the plan the moment someone decided that this was a story worthy of reporting as news. In the real world, the ad would have had minimal local impact – and probably not have even been noticed by kids, other than having a hot chick that the boys might have found exciting. For the BBC to present this as news,while ignoring, marginalising or dismissing as trolls opposing interpretations is both pathetic and telling.