Close-Up: Live Issue - Are the British too easily offended?

Is the public's growing readiness to complain about ads part of a wider social trend, Jeremy Lee asks.

It seems astonishing that in the entire history of British TV advertising, with its proud tradition of sexual innuendo and provocative imagery, an ad that shows call-centre staff speaking with their mouths full has provoked the most viewer complaints ever.

The Advertising Standards Authority has received more than 1,000 complaints about the spot for KFC through Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and the ad is under investigation. The complainants fear that showing people talking while eating could encourage bad manners.

While this may seem timely given Tony Blair's moral crusade for better manners and greater respect, it also raises the question of whether Britain is turning into a nation of whingers willing to complain about anything.

After all, tradition has it that Britain is a passive nation. British people (aside from those on the lunatic fringes who fire off complaint letters in green ink) are famed for not wanting to make a fuss. It has just not been the done thing.

But there is evidence that British society seems to be going down the hitherto US route of making complaints, perhaps seeking some sort of recompense, over perceived slights or causes of offence. Where once a trip on a pavement or a stumble at work was an occupational hazard, ambulance-chasing lawyers now encourage people to seek financial compensation.

In the same Queen's Speech that announced a mission against "disrespect", the Government also outlined legislation to enable people to seek greater redress against the NHS for botched treatment.

With people now more aware of what they perceive to be their "rights", is there a knock-on effect on advertising? Rather than just ignore ads that they don't like, are people now more willing to articulate their dissatisfaction?

Evidence from the ASA suggests this could be the case. Interestingly, it's not just advertisers at the traditionally more controversial end of the spectrum - such as booze and cars - that have been hauled up before advertising's beak.

Sex has always been a thorny area and agencies have frequently pushed their luck in this area, with TBWA\London forming an entire campaign around rearranging the letters of the word "fuck".

Religion has also, quite rightly, always been an area where agencies and advertisers (and broadcasters) have had to tread carefully.

Last year, a campaign for the Channel 4 series Shameless, which spoofed Da Vinci's The Last Supper, was the most complained-about press ad. Meanwhile, a Saatchi & Saatchi spot for Mr Kipling mince pies, in which a woman appeared to give birth during a nativity play, was the second-most complained-about TV ad.

But earlier this month, DFS was in the spotlight when an ad created by PWLC showed dirty old sofas dumped by the roadside and in a canal. Coca-Cola, too, is potentially walking on thin ice with its current Fanta Z ads, which show people spitting the drink out.

So far this year, there have been numerous accounts of brands from all sectors - training shows, soft drinks, beers, cars - being the subject of complaints. Certainly, the fact that the ASA is a one-stop shop has made complaining easier. But are British people now more easily shocked, or are advertisers making deliberately controversial ads in order to achieve some sort of cut-through?

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CREATIVE - Steve Henry, executive creative director, HHCL/Red Cell

"My views on this can be split into two. When you get a significant number of complaints this is a genuine signal that people are getting fed up with ads intruding on their lives. Interactivity is on the increase everywhere and nobody is prepared to be a passive consumer any more.

"But unless the number of complaints is huge, I wouldn't worry. There's a minority of people who complain about anything. I once saw the duty officer's log for ITV and it showed one guy ringing up to say there were too many goldfish on TV. You don't want to worry about the handful of complaints that usually come in about ads. They're statistically irrelevant."

REGULATOR - Chris Graham, director-general, Advertising Standards Authority

"Complaints about ads aren't new - Wrigley's Xcite, Opium perfume, the British Safety Council and Mr Kipling have all generated large numbers of objections.

"The one-stop shop approach is making it easier for consumers to get their voices heard - until the ASA took over responsibility for broadcast ads last November, we were having to turn people away who tried to complain to us about TV and radio ads. Now, those complaints are registered.

"The KFC ad has certainly generated a strong response from the public but, ultimately, ads aren't judged on the number of complaints. They're judged on whether or not they break the advertising code."

CLIENT - Julia Goldin, marketing director, Coca-Cola

"Consumers are at the heart of everything we do. Finding impactful, creative and relevant ways to communicate to our audience is key to the success of our brands. We actively search out and act on feedback from consumers at every stage in a campaign's development, including post-airing.

"Consumers today are more demanding than ever and increasingly sophisticated in decoding advertising. They want us to be honest, smart and entertaining.

We search for a balance between understanding what makes our consumers tick and creating campaigns that push a fresh creative perspective."

SOCIAL COMMENTATOR - Quentin Letts, author/journalist

"I think people can fire off instant anger or delight e-mails much more easily. It's also much more satisfying to complain instantly - in the old days you had to either write a letter or wait until the next day to call the person up.

"People now are more prone to speaking out and they are less deferential.

The growth of ambulance-chasing lawyers has only added to this problem.

"Advertisers such as French Connection, that deliberately try to create publicity by being controversial are usually ignored for being just that. But this KFC ad is much more pernicious. I think it deserves a good kick up the backside."