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Agencies Say British Regulators Are Too Quick to Ban Ads

Smirnoff vodka did it. French Connection has done it many times. Yves Saint Laurent's campaign for Opium perfume featuring the model Sophie Dahl posing naked really did it.

All three ads were banned by British regulators. Many countries have watchdogs that regulate advertisements to ensure that they are honest and decent. But people in the industry say that Britain's regulators have become notorious for their Victorian mind-set when it comes to the display of the flesh. And it is not just nudity that riles regulators. Advertisements that could incite children to strange behavior - one regulator said that an ad for Tango, a British soft drink, would provoke children to slap each other around the ears - are also taboo.

The rules have gotten out of hand, some ad executives say. Watchdog groups offer conflicting guidelines, and regulators, who are supposed to protect consumers, increasingly uphold complaints brought by competitors intent on seeing a rival's ad taken off the air or kept out of print.

The executives say that rather than taking a reading of the country's moral temperature, watchdogs can simply ban an ad that has received as few as one complaint. (The advertisement featuring Ms. Dahl received 1,000 complaints, making it the most protested ad in five years.)

"Regulation has gone mad," said Chris O'Shea, executive creative director of Banks Hoggins O'Shea/ FCB, part of the FCB Group unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies. "It's all gone a bit barmy."

Robert Campbell, executive creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y.& R., part of the WPP Group, said, "There are so many different bodies, I can never remember all of them."

Ad executives say they hope that a bill now before Parliament will create common standards for evaluating ads by combining a grab bag of regulators - including one for television, one for radio and one for all of broadcasting - into a single body.

"The government has talked about a need for a lighter regulatory touch," said Andrew Brown, director general of the Advertising Association, an industry organization. The hope is that the new superregulator "will be a liberalizing force," he said.

Regulators in Britain do not have the authority to prevent companies from running advertisements. But they hold powerful sway with newspapers and magazines, which will often chose not to run an ad based on the recommendation of the Advertising Standards Authority, the print watchdog.

Broadcasters are even more nervous about showing advertisements that might be considered indecent or offensive, because they could lose their license. For that reason, a special body, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Center, reviews all television scripts to ascertain their legality and pass judgment on taste. Once on the air, a commercial can still face a recommendation of withdrawal issued by the Independent Television Commission.

For years advertising executives have bristled at such oversight, which, they say, limits their creativity.

Mr. O'Shea recalls attending the British Design and Art Direction awards program in 1999, which recognizes agencies around the world, and feeling frustrated when a campaign for the Internet electronics retailer Outpost.com nabbed the top honor. The ads, designed by Cliff Freeman & Partners of New York, featured gerbils shot from a cannon, and a pack of rabid dogs let loose on schoolchildren. "We could never do that stuff here," Mr. O'Shea said.

When it comes to showing flesh, advertisers are corseted by regulations, said Mr. Campbell of Rainey Kelly, explaining, "We are a repressed nation." Although Continental Europe has moved to clamp down on indecent and offensive advertising, especially spots that portray women in overly submissive postures, nudity is still much more accepted on the Continent, Mr. Campbell said. Not so in Britain.

J. Walter Thompson, also part of WPP, learned that lesson when a print ad it created for Smirnoff, featuring a naked man sliding down a banister with the tagline "If Smirnoff made pain killers" was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Sometimes a campaign seems harmless, but holds the potential of producing unwanted side effects, as was the case with the Tango advertisement, created by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, part of Chime Communications, which featured a fat, Buddha-like orange man slapping people around the ears. The Independent Television Commission received a flood of complaints that children were mimicking the ad by slapping each other around the ears. Tango withdrew the ad.

Likewise, a television commercial created by the Publicis unit of the Publicis Group for Hewlett-Packard that featured children throwing snowballs at a passing train was deemed dangerous by the commission, as it condoned antisocial behavior. This despite a green light from the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Center, the agency created to vet potential problem ads before they are shown. The spot was withdrawn.

Often competitors, not consumers, are the ones to lodge complaints, with the intention of muzzling the competition. That has frequently been the case among the British supermarket chains Tesco, Safeway and Sainsbury, which challenge each others price claims. The Advertising Standards Authority estimates that 10 percent of its complaints are from competitors.

Perhaps most frustrating, industry executives say, are the conflicting signals they receive. For instance, the standards authority recently allowed an openly sexy campaign for Lever Faberge, a unit of Unilever, showing women's faces with taglines like "Play with me" and "Have fun with me." Yet, the broadcast clearance center prohibited a television commercial for French Connection featuring a couple having a conversation in which every word began with the initials of the company, as well as two other letters of a certain four-letter word.

French Connections agency TBWA/London, part of the TBWA Worldwide division of the Omnicom Group, refused to modify the commercial. Instead, the company ran print ads featuring the word "sorry" and directed consumers to check out the commercial on its Web site.

Sometimes the stir caused by a banned campaign is worth the publicity, said Mr. Campbell of Rainey Kelly. He created an ad several years ago for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protesting the live transport of animals. It pictured a skinned pony hanging from a butcher's hook. Even though he had to pull the ad, the amount of publicity it generated was priceless. "It was a fabulous scandal," Mr. Campbell said.


Suzanne Kapner, The New York Times. January 4, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.