Shiitakeheads: The ASA Causes More Offence Than Any Ad They Object To

Once again, Britain’s self-appointed advertising censors are allowing a handful of tutting moralists to dictate what everyone else can see.

Once again, we find ourselves unable to resist the lure of stupid, stupid Advertising Standards Authority decisions. Readers outside the UK, talk among yourselves for a while as we delve into the moralising madness of an ‘authority’ that, as we have to say every time, has no actual legal standing but nevertheless sits in judgement over British advertising because no one – not the magazines, TV channels of billboard companies that carry ads and hardly any of the businesses that they censure – has the balls to tell them what to do with their decisions.

For once, one of the latest judgements has nothing to do with scantily-clad women in clothing ads or booze producers having the audacity to try and make their product appealing (but don’t worry, we’ll get there in a moment). No, this time it’s all to do with bad language – or, more accurately, the implication of bad language.

Tesco ran the following ad in the Daily Mail and Daily Express, in posters and on Twitter:

Other variations used the slogans “They’re taking the pistachio”, and “For fettuccine’s sake”. You can see what they are getting at, I’m sure, just as you can see what got a whole 52 people worked up. Of course, double-entendre and innuendo have long been a part of British culture and British comedy, and hinting at a ‘bad’ word is not the same as actually saying it – this is, after all, why we have alternative words that people use or why we asterisk out certain letters – we all know what the actual words are, we just don’t hear or see them in all their glory and that somehow makes it okay.

Nevertheless, the ASA has decided that both the shiitake and pistachio ads – alongside a variant of the fettuccine ad that began “for F- sake” – would cause widespread offence despite the fact that they clearly didn’t. 52 complaints are quite high by ASA standards but still represent such a pitiful part of the population that it barely registers a statistic. And this is for ads that appeared in the right-wing and morally upstanding Daily Express, for crying out loud – if the readers of that paper are not upset, I think we can safely say that practically no one else would be.

Meanwhile, a series of Adidas ads have been banned for featuring what has been described as “explicit nudity”, which might be technically accurate but is also a very subjective and moralising description – you could call an image of bare arms or legs ‘explicit nudity’ as well. The ads featured the bare breasts of numerous women – between 20 and 64 depending on which version you saw – to promote the company’s new sports bra range. It seems like the very opposite of sensationalism – the company was careful to consult the Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code) and was assured that, as the nudity was clearly not sexual, the ads were fine as long as they didn’t appear near schools or religious buildings. Clearly, Adidas was – like many advertisers – being cynically diverse in this campaign,  but nevertheless, it seems a good idea to emphasise the fact that every body is different – and you might think that the ads go out of their way not to be erotic. You’d have to be pretty petty and morally uptight to find these objectional but that seems to be the ASA to a T.

The campaign received just 24 complaints, which you might think is evidence that the public doesn’t, by and large, see bare breasts as something terrible and corrupting. But of course, the ASA agreed with those 24 people, some of whom thought the ads ‘sexualised’ the women by reducing them to body parts – a very angry feminist take that seems to (deliberately) miss the whole point of the ads and, if true, would presumably alienate the target audience, something advertisers tend to steer clear of; others thought that they would corrupt children. The ASA condemned the posters – even one where the nipples were pixellated – as being potentially harmful to children (though perhaps we’d be better off if children were taught that nudity is not inherently dangerous or sexual). They also condemned a Twitter ad. Again, they claimed the likelihood of widespread offence, yet Adidas UK has 824, 239 followers at the time of writing. 24 people are .003 of that number. And that’s just the UK site. The global site, where this first appeared, has over 4 million followers. Yeah, very widespread clearly.

If the ASA really wanted to gauge public opinion, shouldn’t they be carrying out opinion polls before jumping to judgement? Maybe they should ask a selection of randomly selected people about whether or not they are offended before allowing a tiny, shouty and otherwise insignificant number of people to dictate what the rest of us can see. Either that or just admit that they make judgements based entirely on their own rather prudish beliefs.

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  1. That .003 figure assumes they are actually followers of Adidas’ twitter and not just people who got told about it by somebody else, which is probably pretty likely.

    It does feel as though these people live in an alternate reality, a friend of mine works in a school (in the lower years) and has to deal with a child who not only swears profusely but physically attacks people when he doesn’t get his way. It has nothing to do with what they’ve seen on TV or in adverts and everything to do with their parents behaviour.

    Even my own nephew, when he was 8, told me that he’d seen all the death scenes from the Alien films on youtube and that they weren’t scary. Needless to say, overhearing this conversation, my brother was not best pleased.

    It’s always struck me that we should stop treating kids like idiots and have proper conversations with them to help them understand why things may or may not be appropriate. All banning does is make them seem illicit and more appealing.

    1. Of course, the .003 was the highest number possible and is likely to be an overestimation.

      My memory of school is that kids knew and used every swear word imaginable, that increasingly battered porn mags did the rounds and that plenty of kids were smoking at the back of the bikesheds. I think we forget what it was like to be a kid once we grow up. You’re right that we should be taking a more realistic attitude and teaching kids how to deal with content that might be unsuitable – whether it is emphasising that porn is fantasy, not real life, or pointing out the dangers of drug use (legal drugs or otherwise) without being hysterical. And not acting as though the mere sight of bare breasts, even in a non-sexual context, is somehow likely to deprave or corrupt.

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