ADVERTISING: Do shock ads harm advertisers’ health?

Only a week after the Advertising Standards Authority sharply warned advertisers against flouting its guidelines, Virgin Interactive Entertainment is preparing to do just that.

Only a week after the Advertising Standards Authority sharply warned

advertisers against flouting its guidelines, Virgin Interactive

Entertainment is preparing to do just that.

‘Protect your worm from the evil pussy’ declares one of the suggestive

ads for computer game Earthworm Jim 2. Another features the worm in a

suggestive position with a cow, accompanied by the words ‘Introduce your

worm to some livestock’.

The ads go up on Friday (December 8) in underground carriages, lifestyle

magazines, specialist press and sites in men’s toilets in the north-west

of England.

Worm that turned into bad taste

The campaign is certain to be controversial. VIE and agency TBWA have

created the ads despite the fact that in April a complaint about an

Earthworm Jim ad was upheld by the ASA.

The poster featured a man in a pink leotard and a bulge in his groin,

alongside the caption ‘Get your worm out for the birds’.

The ASA pulled the ads and asked VIE to avoid sexual humour in future

campaigns, but the company has chosen to ignore this advice. It has to

be asked whether the aim of the campaign is to sell the computer game

via the posters - or to have them banned and garner far more national

coverage through newspapers.

Virgin Interactive Entertainment’s vice-president, marketing, Simon

Jeffery denies this is the case.‘We certainly don’t want to get the ads

pulled, that would be suicide,’ he says.

The campaign also raises the question whether this type of advertising

damages the industry as a whole.

Lord Rodgers, chairman of the ASA, warned last week that statutory

legislation looms closer every time an advertiser deliberately breaks

the rules.

Few people outside marketing realise that the ASA is a self-regulatory

body. It tries to rule with a light touch, but it is now very worried

that unless the advertising industry puts its own house in order, the

government will.

‘Each time a narrow-minded advertiser plays games with the system, it

pushes us further towards statutory regulation,’ says ASA spokesman

Grahame Fowler.

But there is the viewpoint that the Earthworm Jim ads and other

infamous campaigns such as Club 18-30, Sky’s OJ Simpson ads, Playboy’s

‘Morgasms’ ad and Benetton’s notorious campaigns are harmless fun.

Proponents of this argument claim it is only the sanctimonious who have

any objections. They add that most people are sophisticated enough to

realise when an ad is using humour.

On the ‘inoffensive’?

Jeffery claims the new Earthworm Jim ads will be seen in the same vein

as they see British seaside postcards.

‘It’s Benny Hill humour rather than offensive,’ he claims. ‘People will

nudge each other and say ‘that’s a bit cheeky’.’

Frequently the problem for the ASA is that by the time ads are pulled,

they have come to the end of their run. This was the case with Saatchi &

Saatchi’s Club 18-30 ads.

However, if it can get warning early enough, the ASA will issue an alert

to media owners asking them to look out for the ads and seek advice

before they run it.

One such example was the RSPCA staged ad showing a dead horse hung up on

a hook. The Times agreed to run the copy, but ran a blank page instead

of showing the photo.

Many in the advertising industry argue there is nothing wrong with this

sort of advertising, but there is the danger that campaigns out of step

with public opinion could alienate rather than attract consumers. For

example, over 800 people complained about the Benetton ad showing a

newborn baby covered in afterbirth. The ASA pulled the ad.

Out of harm’s way?

‘We had letters from mothers saying their children were really disturbed

by the posters. One said her child had been upset for a whole week

before admitting that the problem was the poster opposite the house

showing what they thought was a dead baby covered in blood,’ says


Unless the industry takes note of these complaints and stops trying to

play games, it can say goodbye to the independence it has enjoyed until



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