Mike Baker, CEO of the Outdoor Media Centre
Mike Baker, CEO of the Outdoor Media Centre
A view from Mike Baker

Think BR: Outdoor - the last frontier of decency

It's right that we want to protect children from sexualised imagery in ads, but is it really that much of a problem in outdoor, writes Mike Baker, chief executive of the Outdoor Media Centre.

So there I was, sitting across the table from David Cameron at the cabinet table at Number 10, as you do.

Bang in the PM’s eyeline and pretty much on the naughty step, representing the outdoor industry in connection with sexualised imagery in outdoor advertising.

Allegedly there’s too much of it. Or that’s what Reg Bailey said, and he wrote the Bailey Report about letting children be children and not exposing them to too many nasties on their way to adulthood.

Perfectly laudable goal, by the way. I have children too and would do all in my power to protect them.

The thing is, advertising does tend to use sex to sell. When you look hard at it, there’s some sort of come-on, or body pose, or steamy setting, or mood lighting, or sultry overtones found in ads for products as diverse as perfume, swimwear, lingerie, footwear, cosmetics, jeans, entertainment and motors.

And therein lies the problem. What constitutes sexualisation, and how far is too far? 

Reg Bailey wants us to create placement restrictions on sexualised ads to keep them away from the proximity of schools, mosques, churches and other sensitive locations.

The outdoor industry already does that with alcohol, after all, so why not with other products?

We can and we will, but it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, condom and STD health messages are overtly about sex, and might easily provoke little Susan to ask all sorts of embarrassing questions of her mum.

But many would say the best place for such advertising is bang outside schools, topping up whatever sex education takes place within the school gates. So we are back to those tricksy definitions again. 

Then there’s timing. The media buyer needs to tell us, at the point of booking, that the client is planning a potentially offensive campaign and requires special placement.

But as we all know, the left hand knoweth not what the right hand doeth, a lot of the time.

Sometimes even the UK client knoweth not a lot either, because the copy is coming in from Italy, or France, or all points East.

But the biggest challenge remains drawing the new line on what is allowable.

The outdoor industry has already taken steps to control lapdancing ads and sex shop ads.

The ASA, which does an excellent job for our industry, and responds to every single complaint, has used stock photos to suggest the type of imagery which might get referred to adjudication.

The OMC is doing further qual and quant research through the Ad Association’s Credos division as to which actual live ads really cause offence.

My own hunch is that the British public has a problem with very few outdoor ads. We are a long way from the days of FCUK and Benetton, after all.

Total complaints about all outdoor campaigns in 2010 numbered fewer than 2,000, and the majority of these complaints were not about indecency, but about inaccurate or misleading claims, like broadband speeds.

Last Monday I was phoned by the BBC researching material for the One Show. Could I direct them to some "billboard locations with raunchy ads on", the caller wanted to know, so they could film them?

In all honesty I couldn’t. But I did ask him to let me know if he found any. So the programme had to make do with those ASA stock photos instead. 

Perhaps predictably 'Hello Boys' has featured, wags might say prominently, in press coverage on this subject over the past week.

Well, that ad last ran seventeen years ago, in 1994.

I find it instructive that the journos can’t drum up more offensive and more recent material.

But tellingly, would 'Hello Boys' even make it through the net at all these days?

I really hope it still would as it was a brilliant piece of creative and also won our Outdoor Hall of Fame contest earlier this year.

Mike Baker, CEO of the Outdoor Media Centre