Regulation and advertising: violence, sex and the vulnerable
The advertising regulator in Britain is the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It started in the 1960s regulating print advertisement whilst, at the time, broadcasting had its own regulatory authorities. Since 2003, however, the ASA has worked under the auspices of Ofcom and is now responsible for regulating all advertisements. The ASA uses the CAP code (Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing) against which it adjudicates complaints received about advertisements.
An advert has to deliver its message in a brief moment as a reader flicks through a magazine or watches it on screen. This encourages the use of shorthand, cultural references and often with this comes the use of stereotypes. However, audiences are not homogenous and even if some of the target, primary and secondary, audiences take the message as intended, others may not. And as you already know, media texts are often ‘polysemic’ and adverts are no exception, so there is sometimes a problem for producers because they cannot guarantee that audiences will read adverts in the preferred way.It is rarely the intention of the advertiser to cause offence or to misguide audiences (although some advertisers actively attempt to stir up controversy). If they do and the adverts end up causing offence then the regulators may become involved.
Consider the advertisement below for fashion house Dolce and Gabbana.
In what ways might different audiences read this advert?
This advert shows a scene in which the clothes are being worn in a stylised composition against a backdrop of classical archways and landscape referencing the genre of historical paintings. The monochrome nature of the advert adds to this artistic language. The clothes on the young men are shades of greys and blacks, whilst the young woman to the left stands out in her flesh-coloured nakedness and blonde / whitish hair. A female nude is often seen in classical paintings, but this one wears fashion boots. A revenge tragedy appears to be played out in the genre further emphasising the style of historical classical paintings, One man wearing a great-coat, again connoting the (fashionable) past, holds a gun whilst another brandishes a knife.
This image was part of a campaign for the upmarket brand of clothes targeting an affluent market, one which might be expected to recognise the intertextual references to particular paintings. However, the ASA received a comparatively large number (1661) of complaints about this campaign, An explanation for this may be the contemporary context as there was a debate over gun and knife crimes in the media when the advert first appeared in Jan 2007. The complainants felt that the campaign, with its glamorised images, was irresponsible and appeared to condone violent crime. Dolce and Gabbana replied that it was inspired by well known paintings of the Napoleonic period and their stylised nature did not suggest aggression or condone violence. However: .
“‘The ASA disagreed and upheld the complaints, It considered that the first ad showed the knives being brandished aggressively and gave an overall impression of violence. As a result the ASA ruled that the ads could be seen as condoning or glorifying knife-related violence and were therefore irresponsible and likely to cause serious or widespread offence”.
It might well have been the case that without the topical concern about young men and knife culture in the UK, this advert would have not attracted as many complaints as it did.