Protein World’s ‘Are you Beach Body Ready?’ adverts have created a massive row. In among the countless adverts that commuters are pummeled by, these posters immediately struck me as unusually crass and objectionable.
So I was not that surprised to see the furore that has developed this week in response. There has been widespread vandalism of the posters and a whole array of online spoofs in response. Today there is even a protest rally against the adverts organised in Hyde Park.
Campaigning against adverts
There is already enough words written about the adverts, both in favour of the protests and in defending them. What I want to focus on is the peculiar challenge of campaigning against adverts because it’s a subject I have some experience of.
About 5 years ago, I started a campaign against billboards promoting a website which facilitates and encourages married people to have affairs. I saw the advert after my son (who was 5 at the time) asked me while I was driving ‘Daddy, what’s a marital affair?’ when he saw the advert.
I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and they wrote back to me saying that the adverts in their opinion the advert ‘did not offend against widely held moral or cultural standards’.
So I set up a facebook group to support my complaint which over the course of a few days gathered over 4000 members. This led to many people joining in a series of simple, non-violent direct actions against the company who ran the website. After just a few days, this led to the withdrawing of the advert. (You can read more about it here: Marital affairs, facebook and non-violent protest)
Creating more publicity
Although ‘successful’ in having the advert withdrawn, there was an obvious problem that was continually pointed out to me – that our campaign in effect gave the company exactly what it wanted from the adverts: publicity.
This came home to me when a widely-read online blog claimed that ‘Jon Kuhrt is probably a brilliant marketing expert working on behalf of the affairs website’. I remember reading it with incredulity and realising the trap that I had fallen into. Our campaign meant that this particular advert was the 4th most controversial advert of 2010 – but I am sure the website company and their advertising agency were delighted.
When similar adverts re-appeared a year or so later, I adopted a different approach and deliberately did not use the advert itself as a basis for the campaign. Instead, working with many others, we formed a coalition called ‘Faithfulness Matters’ which worked far more behind the scenes.
Instead of seeking the superficial generation of publicity, we focused on the key points where our pressure could make a difference. It was far harder work, a lot less fun and also included some nasty legal threats made against me personally. But it was also more effective. Our work led to a formal meeting with the company (along with their lawyers) where they agreed to not to advertise these websites on billboards anymore.
We have already seen the CEO of Protein World say that the controversy has been great for his business. This means that the real battle will be won by ensuring that such adverts are stopped before they generate the publicity they are designed to create. We need an ASA with more teeth and we need the billboard companies and London Transport to commit to refuse to carry adverts which harm and warp people’s perspectives.
One thing is for sure – we cannot expect too much of an advertising industry which is committed to feed off the greed and insecurity of the public. George Orwell wrote:
‘Advertising is the dirtiest ramp that capitalism has yet produced…They have their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.’
Campaigning against adverts is not straight-forward. But it needs to be done. We need to stand up against public statements which demean and damage society. The challenge is how we do so in a way which does not give the companies the publicity they crave.