Editorial: Complaints culture can pose threat to creativity

Can there ever have been a time when complaints about advertising reflected so many contradictory attitudes and so much moral ambiguity among the public?

With attendances at Church of England Sunday services expected to fall to less than a tenth of what they are now in just over a generation, you'd have expected little interest in a pro-Christian bus-side ad that declares: "There definitely is a god." So how come the campaign has become the fourth most complained-about in the history of the Advertising Standards Authority?

Even the concern about binge-drinking and its effects doesn't fully explain why complaints about alcohol promotion to the Portman Group have hit a ten-year high. And last year, in a Britain supposedly tolerant about sexuality, Heinz pulled a TV spot featuring a gay kiss even though the ASA declined to investigate the complaints against it.

Of course, it's always been possible to whip up a tsunami of opposition to an ad that is out of all proportion to reality. You only have to remember what happened a few years ago when the late Lynda Lee-Potter mobilised Middle England against a poster for Gossard Glossies that asked: "Who said a woman can't get pleasure from something soft?"

Since then, the internet has changed things immeasurably. It has made it easy for users to evangelise about the things they like and complain about the things they don't.

You could argue that this is simply democracy in action. The problem is that with so much opinion flying around the ether, it becomes harder for industry watchdogs and regulators to assess the real public mood and make its decisions accordingly. The ASA is always under pressure to do the right thing. But with everybody expressing a view on almost anything, who is to say what's right?

In such a climate, how many more advertisers will play it safe - and, as such, suffocate creativity - for fear of upsetting anybody with a grievance and a laptop from which to air it?