Close-Up: Live Issue - Was the ASA right to ban Trident ads?

Has the chewing-gum brand shot itself in the foot with its Caribbean-themed ad, John Tylee asks.

We'll probably never know for sure whether those behind the Trident chewing-gum campaign, ordered off-air by advertising watchdogs after a torrent of complaints, were victims of circumstance or are paying for their insensitivity.

Without doubt, the campaign, criticised for lampooning Caribbean people and their culture, hit TV and cinema screens at an unfortunate time.

The 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade has heightened sensitivities about black history and culture. Moreover, the Cadbury-owned brand is unfortunate enough to share its name with the Metropolitan Police's "black-on-black" gun-crime initiative.

Hopeful of successfully launching a brand that would challenge Wrigley's 95 per cent share of the UK chewing-gum market, Cadbury now stands accused of not having heeded the warning signs that its ads promoting the brand could land it in trouble.

The commercials, inspired by dub poetry and featuring strong Caribbean accents, provoked some ferocious complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

One of them was from Ligali, the organisation that campaigns on behalf of the British African community. Emma Pierre, its head of media affairs, remarked: "Mocking African history, culture and people for the purposes of entertainment and profit has unfortunately become commonplace in the European-controlled commercial and media arenas."

After sifting through more than 500 complaints, the ASA threw out those accusing the campaign of being offensive due to the brand name being linked with black gun crime. Nevertheless, the watchdog's verdict was that the ads (albeit unintentionally) had overstepped the mark, even though the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre approved them for screening.

The ruling begs the question of whether Cadbury should have paid more attention to its research, which showed that about one in five African-Caribbean people found the ads offensive.

"If I'd seen that work coming out of my creative department, I would have been asking questions," the head of a major agency says. "I'm not obsessed with political correctness, but this is an area in which you need to be very careful."

Richard Storey, M&C Saatchi's chief strategy officer, questions the campaign's relevance. "What's the connection between Trident and the West Indies?" he asks. "Lilt and Malibu are both brands that have been promoted using West Indian stereotypes, but the advertising is true to their heritage and I don't remember any complaints about it."

The verdict is an undoubted blow for Cadbury, which says it is disappointed by the verdict but accepts it. The confectionery giant acquired the Trident brand when it paid £2.7 billion for the US chewing-gum company Adams in 2003 and is putting £10 million behind the brand's UK launch.

Britons spent an estimated £300 million on gum last year, and global sales have been growing annually by 8 per cent. That's a far higher rate than for chocolate or sweets.

Cadbury is looking to make gum-chewing pleasurable rather than simply being an aid to cleaner teeth or fresher breath. Indeed, it already claims to have made inroads into the virtual domination of the market by Wrigley and to have carved out a 15 per cent share since the launch.

But the Trident campaign has left a sour taste in a lot of mouths. "If the ads had been done with charm it might have been different," a leading planning director says. "But they were not. They were just bad."

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FORMER ASA COUNCILLOR - Hugh Burkitt, chief executive, the Marketing Society; former ASA council member

"This complaint comes under a section of the CAP code which has few words to help council members; namely, does the ad cause 'serious or widespread offence'? That's a difficult decision when you are answering for everyone else.

"I would not have upheld the complaints against these ads. The difficulty is to do with humour: is this funny, or is this in bad taste? I thought it was quite funny, albeit in a way designed to be memorably irritating. The ad didn't make me laugh out loud, but I could see the advertiser was trying to be amusing. I'm not sure if the people who complained about this ad were genuinely offended or if they were being politically correct."

CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Trevor Robinson, creative director, Quiet Storm; chair of the IPA Ethnic Diversity Group

"If the ad was indeed offensive to a great deal of people, then it should be banned. The IPA Ethnic Diversity Group has been trying to get the industry to see the viability of using non-white people in advertising. Yet here we are pulling ads off the screen featuring a black poet and a white woman speaking with a West Indian accent.

"My worry is this implies you can't use a black person with a certain accent in a certain way or even that you can't show any nationality using a 'stereotypical accent'.

"Often, banned ads mark a change for better or worse. Where will these ads take us? Hopefully a step forward in raising the profile of positive racial representation."

AGENCY CHIEF - Mark Lund, chief executive, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners; chairman, Advertising Association

"I'm sure that the advertiser didn't intend to be racist. The issue is more about the fact that if you are in an area where you could cause offence, the amount of charm you need to navigate through it is crucial. These Trident ads just weren't very charming.

"A lot of English humour has traditionally been based on racial stereotypes, be it Scottish or Welsh or Australian. Should you just say you can't ever use race as a source of humour any more? That would be boring. The problem with these ads is that they weren't that well done."

STRATEGIST - Nigel Jones, president, DraftFCB Group

"I don't believe for a moment that JWT set out to be offensive, but I think the agency was being a bit naive to believe it could get away with it. I also think the ads should have been pulled as soon as the first complaints were received.

"This is a highly sensitive subject, and Cadbury's research showing that some African-Caribbean people found them offensive should have set alarm bells ringing.

"The biggest surprise is that this issue should have arisen now. I can't remember encountering a problem about racism in ads during the past five years because advertisers and agencies are so conscious of it. I thought everybody had taken heed of how careful you need to be."