Do you feel uncomfortable at the image of a middle-aged jolly black
man working on a laptop in a cafe in the new HSBC commercial? The point
being made is how things are changing and I’m sure the image is to
illustrate how portable computerisation has become. Unfortunately, what
some people seem to see is a horribly patronising comment on how
remarkable it is that black people now use computers.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder - and that’s precisely the
What we have to be sensitive to is not what we show but what people
And part of that process we should go through when producing ads is
assessing not just the commercial potential of the public reaction but
also the personal, social reaction. Maybe this reaction should be
informed by the fact that the public does seem to see a difference
between advertising and the environment that surrounds it.
This is nothing to do with imposed censorship. All creative people are
censors anyway. They automatically sift ideas and subjects they’re
interested in progressing and some of the decisions are based not on
commercial efficacy but on taste and even on personal moral values. And
it’s nothing to do with the usual argument about the viewer having an
expectation of a programme’s content whereas ads are unpredictable.
It’s to do with motive. An ad is seen to be there to flog goods, make
money. As this is not considered as lofty a goal as elevating public
sensitivities or educating the masses, storylines or techniques that
people would find acceptable in other broadcast messages are found
questionable in advertising.
Never did I feel this more forcibly than when I was creative director of
Ammirati Puris Lintas during the Rover Hostage Crisis, when a Rover
commercial depicting a hostage exchange caused a minor uproar. Using
human suffering to make money was seen to be utterly unacceptable. But
given there’s no great clamour for those who’ve made cinema fortunes out
of the Titanic disaster to give their money back, we can deduce there is
clearly a different value system at work for viewing ads.
There’s also context. I suspect that people automatically gauge the
relevance and appropriateness of advertising messages against their
ultimate goal and their sponsor. Most of the Benetton images wouldn’t
have caused confusion if they were used in social issue advertising. The
suspicion of hypocrisy in Oliviero Toscani’s claimed social concern
might be allayed if he were to run the ads without the Benetton
So it’s the logo that makes the difference? Well yes, that and the
Unlike programmes, each ad ends with the name of the people who bought
you the message and that can only be a stamp of approval of everything
they’ve just laid in front of you.
When a Martin Clunes throws up over his girlfriend on TV we all think
’how droll’. But if he does so in a commercial for a household name,
it’s that household name bringing it to us and we think ’how sad, how
inappropriate, how desperate’.
So no matter how much we’d like the same freedoms as the programme
makers, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get them simply because of the
different perspective in which we’re seen. And, if you’re interested in
the freedom of speech, it’s a very good reason to fear the growth of