Contraception: worth talking about, but very quietly please

Obviously, sex sells. Ad breaks are full of it, explicit and implied – writhing perfume models, the jeans left grass stained by a hot date that only the right detergent can save, flirtatious chocolate-shilling sensualists – and basically that’s fine with me. If advertisers’ didn’t have sex, Christ knows what kind of terrifying methods they’d turn to instead for convincing us to buy stuff.

But in between the nudging, winking and occasional panting, wouldn’t it be nice if sometimes the message seeped through that sex is normal? Something you could talk about calmly, and even plan for – rather than just spritzing some body spray and hoping for the right result. That was the implication of the Department Of Health’s “Contraception: Worth Talking About” ad series. So how come this radio ad (below) has just been criticised by the ASA as too strong for the ears of under-16s?

It’s not explicit. It doesn’t even mention sex, and there’s no heavy breathing – not even a smutty pun. Just a mother and daughter talking about “the coil”, followed by a couple talking about “an implant”, and the message that you can get more information from a doctor or nurse.

At the very worst, a parent whose child heard this at 3:58 might be forced to explain that contraception is something grown-ups use when they don’t want to have babies. And the under-16s the ASA wants to protect from this blandly informative ad certainly include teens who are thinking about having sex, and who could use the encouragement to seek advice.

There is a weird belief that we can guide children to their 16th birthday without ever having to explain where babies come from, never mind how they can be avoided. It’s a dim-witted fetshisation of innocence, as any parent should know: children are curious, and they inevitably spend time with adults of (duh) child-bearing age. It takes a lot of misdirection and obfuscation to explain a pregnancy without answering questions about sex.

But plenty of adults are willing to squirm their way out dishonestly. It’s typical of this cultural squeamishness that an advert for information gets restricted. Eroticism and salaciousness are everywhere, but apparently nothing’s as harmful to children as the promise of a straight answer.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Sell sell sell

Up until the recent recession, it was advertisers who paid for most of your news. Not all of it – the cover price of the newspaper covered some of the costs, and of course there’s the BBC – but publishing was able to be a truly profitable business because of advertisers paying for access to readers. And the more trusted and reputable the journal, the more valuable it could be as a vehicle to advertisers.

Why does your English let you down?

Some of the most successful ads piggyback on a newspaper’s style like mutating parasites, to borrow even more of the hosts authoritative gloss. Earlier this week, the Guardian celebrated the “Does your English let you down?” ad, which has been running pretty much continuously for almost 50 years. “Initially the reader thinks it’s part of editorial,” says Bob Heap of the Practical English Programme: “We used to match the typefaces of the newspaper it was printed in.”

Advertisers can also pay for a newspaper or magazine to produce ad copy in the house style of the journal – advertorial. Whenever this appears, it should always be clearly marked out from the editorial, both to avoid misleading the reader and to protect the paper or magazine’s reputation from corruption. In Free, Chris Anderson compares this approach to the relevance practiced in online ads – which deliberately places ads next to content on the same subject – and wonders whether print editors are over-punctilious about distinguishing ads from editorial:

It’s also entirely possible that we in the traditional media business have it all wrong.Perhaps we are just flattering ourselves with our church-and-state pursuit of purity, and readers don’t care or even notice if a Sony ad is next to a Sony review. Perhaps they would even prefer that and it’s our writers who are the real obstacles, afraid that anyone might think that their opinion has been bought.

Chris Anderson, Free (Random House Business, 2009), pp. 138-9

What’s interesting is that Anderson doesn’t place any value on ad/ed separation as a way of preventing influence, only as a way of preventing the appearance of influence: as far as he’s concerned here, if the reader doesn’t perceive a problem, then there is no problem.

Advertisers, on the other hand, are very conscious of a relationship between the ad and the copy. The presence of illegitimate, ramshackle and unwholesome material has been cited as one of the reasons for the reluctance to sponsor YouTube; the same caution might be about to be extended to newspaper comments sections, as advertisers weigh up the high engagement seen in unmoderated comments sections with the fact that most of the engagement is with racist, vituperative loons.

But just because advertisers seem to agree with some of the principle behind the “Great Wall of China” which Anderson describes, they don’t all necessarily agree with his idea of best practice – and nor do all newspapers, it turns out, since the Express has been nailed by the ASA for running specious “news” copy on a bunch of dubious-sounding CAM treatments alongside adverts for the same products:

The ASA said the articles were “always and uniquely favourable to the product featured in the accompanying ads and contained claims that have been or would be likely to be prohibited in advertisements”.

“We considered that the average reader would have understood the entire page to be a feature on the product, no matter the distinct styles of the top and bottom of the pages,” said the ASA in its ruling.

“We considered that by using that approach the publisher and advertiser were intentionally attempting to circumvent the [advertising] code by asserting the top of the pages were not advertising.”

The Guardian, “ASA raps Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers over advertorials”

(Interesting, as ever, that it falls to the ASA rather than the PCC to correct a practice in which the paper appears to be as culpable as the advertisers.)

Advertising still needs editorial, and editorial needs advertising as much as ever, but they can only have any value to each other if both maintain a basic propriety: whatever financial gain the Express and their advertisers took from this arrangement has probably been wiped out by the loss of reputation both parties brought upon themselves.

Edit 19 August: The ASA’s full judgement is here.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Extraordinary Claims


I thought the thing about religion was believing in really, really improbable things. I thought it was the whole laws-of-nature-defying that made deities so special, and the ability of believers to believe in the vastly unlikely that was going to earn them all the spiffy afterlife rewards. If Christians are going to start arguing that God’s probable, then what’s supposed to be so amazing about God?

PS There probably isn’t now stop worrying etc etc.