Five years on Campaign - during which time I thought I’d seen
everything - failed to prepare me for the reaction to Harriet Green’s
Comment, published in Campaign last week (see Letters, page 22).
Following the release of an ad for the charity, Rubberstuffers, which
featured a gay couple caressing, she wrote a Disgusted-of-Somerset
parody about gays in ads. While not completely condemning them as
shirt-lifting fags, she didn’t like the idea of gays touching each other
and gave herself a smug pat on the back for speaking up for middle-class
jerks with closed minds everywhere.
Adopting the same I-know-I’m-right tone that has helped Bernard Manning
through several thousand nightclub gigs, Harriet didn’t so much write as
sneer her way through the column. But I’m sad to report that a fair
proportion of our esteemed readers got it wrong. They failed to spot
that her Enid Blytonesque moral certainty was about as genuine as a
Carlton TV documentary.
I could have understood the reaction better if the letters had come from
the kind of agencies that use Campaign’s letters page as a new-business
tool. You know the sort: ’At our agency, we believe the
client/integration/disintegration is king.’ But most of the letters were
from people in respected agencies and important media owners,
like ... well, I’d better not say anything that could help to embarrass
It strikes me that there are two main conclusions. The first is how
thoroughly unpleasant it must be, at least some of the time, to work in
advertising these days.
You are already working hard because of depleted resources, not to
mention the squeeze on fees and commission, and you have to maintain a
scrupulous politeness in the face of (all right, occasional) extreme
provocation. That advertising people can still behave like human beings
only enhances my opinion of them. No wonder some of them failed to spot
Harriet’s column as a clever parody.
The second, as our editorial director, Dominic Mills, often warns, is
that ’irony is very difficult in print’.
Perhaps we were wrong to publish a jokey column on such a delicate
Perhaps we should have taken into account the extra sensitivity required
and acted accordingly.
But you could easily draw a parallel with parody ads. I’ve long
suspected that some of these ads work only on one level - with agencies
guilty of over-estimating their audience’s interest in, and knowledge
They pass most consumers completely by but work terribly well for awards
juries and members of Soho House. After all, if the sharpest minds in
advertising can’t spot a parody, do our irate letter writers really
think that the average punter can make out what their own irony-laden
ads are going on about?