Who'd have thought it? Chris Morris made a controversial television
programme. No, honestly, he did. That's Chris "I make controversial
television programmes for a living" Morris. Just about everything he's
ever done has pushed someone's buttons somewhere and the recent Brass
Eye special that satirised media hysteria was deemed so inflammatory by
the usually fearless Channel 4 bosses that they pulled it from its
original scheduling slot while they sought copious amounts of legal
So they must have been as surprised as everyone else that Brass Eye
turned out to be, um, controversial. Controversial enough, in fact, to
whip up what the Daily Mail would probably call "a storm" - and let's
face it, the Mail, which is blessed by a large constituency of
shopkeepers among its readership, has a greater number of pushable
buttons than most media outlets.
Morris and the Mail obviously need each other desperately and the
paper's attempts to work up a wrathful fury of Old Testament proportions
was arguably the most satisfying aspect of this episode - it was a prime
example of the sort of media hysteria that Brass Eye sought to satirise.
There's a pleasing symmetry at work here.
Astonishing. It must be summertime. Perhaps a name might be found for
this sort of period in the life of the nation. Something, perhaps, like
"the silly season".
But credit where credit is due - it was the Mail that pointed out that
the issue had also touched on the lives of a number of advertisers. Two
- Tesco and Heineken - got wind of the fact that they were scheduled
into the programme and promptly pulled their commercials. A number of
others, including Renault and Boots, didn't find out in time and their
ads ran. Were they right to feel aggrieved?
Viewers, after all, are still free in this country to change channels or
even turn off their televisions. But sometimes advertisers don't realise
they're associating their brands with controversy until it's too
Renault insists it is happy with the relationship it has with Channel 4
and is not interested in adding fuel to the fire. The company's head of
marketing communications, Chris White, comments: "Previously Channel 4
has informed us when it thinks a programme is going to be controversial,
normally through our media agency. In this particular instance, Channel
4 did not inform us or Carat about the content of the programme and this
particular episode of Brass Eye is not something we would have chosen to
advertise in. However we are confident of our ongoing relationship with
This system, however loosely constituted, usually works. For instance,
back in June Channel 4 sent Renault a preview tape of Men Only, a
programme that the advertiser was due to sponsor as part of its overall
sponsorship of Channel 4 drama. The programme's storyline lurched from
one violent drink and drugs binge session to another, punctuated by the
occasional gang rape. But in the end, Renault saw no problem with the
programme's content and the sponsorship stood.
There is a long history to this issue. Some advertisers have pretty
obvious sensitivities and many give clear guidelines to their media
For instance, Kellogg, being a purveyor of wholesome family brands, will
only buy into wholesome family programming. But accidents can happen -
such as when BA ads ran in ITV's showing of the spoof disaster movie
Airplane a few years back.
Mark Jarvis, the broadcast director of Carat, says that this whole issue
is one that both agencies and advertisers are very much aware of. He
says: "Clients are concerned about going into programmes that are
tasteless in a broad general sense - such as Brass Eye, obviously - and
those that include material pertinent to their brands. A manufacturer of
slimming products, for instance, might not want to go into a documentary
about slimming. Some advertisers are more attuned to this than
According to some buyers, the technical problem with Brass Eye was the
fact it was rescheduled. They didn't realise that ads booked for that
particular time on that particular night were now in a potential danger
zone. On the other hand, tweaks to the schedule are commonplace - surely
the fact of that matter is that vigilance was lacking.
Jerry Hill, the chief executive of Initiative Media, says it's difficult
to envisage a foolproof system to stop this sort of thing happening. To
pick up on every possible embarrassment, you'd have to vet every break
on every station.
He adds: "In most instances, as in the case of Brass Eye, the (current)
system has worked and the station has reacted by moving the ads.
Generally, the broadcast industry in the UK executes a high level of
sensitivity and has the appropriate systems in place to protect
advertisers from inappropriate slots. This latest example only serves to
keep everybody on their toes."
So, was it mainly the broadcaster's fault? Andy Barnes, the commercial
director of Channel 4, was, in the grand tradition of such
controversies, unavailable for comment. But other broadcasters were
willing to talk about the issue.
Steve Platt, the managing director of Carlton Sales, insists that
broadcasters have thorough monitoring systems in place. But he also
reckons we can learn from the US system. He concludes: "We broadcast a
lot of spots in the UK now, what with cable and satellite, so it's
getting increasingly difficult to monitor. But in the US, where they've
always broadcast a lot of spots, there's been another factor - the
existence of powerful Bible-belt pressure groups. If an advertiser goes
into a smutty programme they might find a pressure group sending round
circulars saying the advertiser should be blacklisted. So in the US,
agencies have dedicated departments whose job it is to view the content
of every single programme. Perhaps they should be considering something
like that here."
Nick Theakstone, the broadcast director of MediaVest, points out that it
can sometimes be difficult with Channel 4 because so much of the
schedule comes with some form of health warning. But he doesn't believe
there's a need for dedicated agency vetting departments. He comments:
"Clearly it's the responsibility of buyers to know exactly what they are
buying and the creative placement of spots within appropriate
environments clearly illustrates that they do. We all have to be aware
of the issues, both buyers and broadcasters. But when it comes down to
it, a large amount of responsibility must lie with the broadcaster
because in the end they are in control of what they put out."