What would happen if the sensitivity police took on advertising? We find out

What do the words ‘fat’, ‘attractive’ and ‘black’ all have in common? They have all been deemed as being offensive and removed from Roald Dahl’s books in an attempt to make them more inclusive. Although we can’t help feeling saying someone is ‘enormous’ instead of ‘fat’ just isn’t going to end well.

But this recent furore over revisions to Roald Dahl’s books does raise the question of how far should this type of censorship actually go? Do you focus just on children’s books, as young people are more impressionable, or do you review every book out there? And yes, that would include Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice anyone!) and even the Bible. And if that’s the case, why stop at books? Films and TV programmes already come with warnings, so shouldn’t advertising face the same fate?

And then there’s the question of what’s sensitive? If fat and attractive are no longer acceptable, what about thin, dowdy, glamourous and cute? Where is the line? Should we just ban all adjectives and have done with it?

So, in the spirit of cultural sensitivity, we’ve taken a look at some ads that have been on TV in the last 6 months to see how they would fare if the sensitivity police got involved and then looked at them from a marketing perspective. Whose side will you be on?

On the Beach

What the sensitivity police say

This ad is just irresponsible. Just last month it was announced that hundreds, yes hundreds of children aged 16 and under needed hospital treatment because they were obese. And yet On the Beach thinks it’s appropriate not only to show an obviously obese child (the rest of the family aren’t much better) stuffing his face full of ice-cream and then going wild at the buffet. And what do his parents do? Absolutely nothing.

Advertisers have a duty of care and shouldn’t show this kind of irresponsible behaviour. Not only could it encourage other people to binge on holiday (diabetes anyone?), but it could also trigger people who are scared of putting on weight to stop eating.

Marketing’s response

Yes, the child is fat enormous, but in the spirit of body positivity, so what? Holidays are renowned for being a time when you relax a little about what you eat and drink, and this ad is just capturing that sentiment. And the choice of Christmas music is genius.

And while advertisers do have a duty of care, ultimately people need to take responsibility for their own actions. If we are worried that showing someone enjoying an ice-cream is going to make people over-indulge or trigger anorexia, then we shouldn’t show anyone eating, ever. In fact, let’s just ban all food ads and solve the problem once and for all.

JanePlan UK

What the sensitivity police say

The complete and utter lack of diversity in this ad is appalling. Not only is it completely unrepresentative of British society, but it also plays into the whole stereotype of ‘ladies who lunch’. We would even go as far to say that it verges on racist as you could conclude that Jane Plan doesn’t think ethnic minorities would like their type of meals, let alone afford them.

Even worse Jane Plan are repeat offenders as they have been making the same mistakes in their advertising since 2015. In today’s society, this just isn’t acceptable.

Marketing’s response

Okay, we’re going to be a bit controversial, but isn’t this ad a prime example of good marketing? This ad screams that marketeers have done what they are meant to do – identified the target audience, in this case white middle-class people, and then made sure any advertising reflects this. For once they haven’t gone down the road of playing safe and having a mixed-race family just to make sure all bases are covered. Given recent research reveals 45% think ethnic minorities are overrepresented on TV, this makes for a refreshing change.

For once we have a company who aren’t trying to be woke. They simply know who their customer is and are targeting them. Good on you Jane Plan.

Coca-Cola: Holidays are coming

What the sensitivity police say

It’s time Coca-Cola binned this ad once and for all. For one thing it channels the whole notion that Father Christmas is real and he’s not. Why as a society we think it’s okay to lie to our children from the day they are born remains something of a mystery. Not only does it teach them that lying is okay, but also that adults can’t be trusted.

To make things even worse this ad lacks any type of diversity, which is just not acceptable. On the plus side, they do use ‘Holidays’ instead of Christmas, so have at least tried to be a bit inclusive.

And the child at the end should not be running out into the road as it could encourage other children to do the same.

Marketing’s response

To be fair, you’ve got us on the lack of diversity, but the rest is just hokum. If we are going to ban any reference to Father Christmas in ads, then we also need to ban all the ads which feature talking animals as they aren’t real either. In fact, we would rather that animals should always be treated with the dignity they deserve, rather than exploited to sell more products. But Father Christmas is part of our festive folklore and has a rich history, so should be left well alone.

As for the using the word ‘holidays’ –  no, just no! We’ve talked before about how brands are too scared to use the C word, but we live in a largely Christian country where Christmas has been a tradition over the last two millennia, so it should be called what it is. We don’t call Eid or Diwali something else in case we ‘offend’ so why should Christmas be any different?

And who goes ‘holidays’ shopping? Nobody. It’s Christmas shopping, plain and simple. Christmas is in winter and holidays are in summer! (Sweeping statement re holidays of course but you get our drift).

As for the child running out – it goes back to the whole issue of personal responsibility. And let’s face it, they’ll only do it once!

Macmillan Cancer Support – Whatever it takes

What the sensitivity police say

There is no doubt that ads by Macmillan and the NHS on cancer and strokes have good intentions, but they are also triggering. How do you think people who are going through, or have been through this situation, feel turning on the TV and being confronted by their daily reality? If you have cancer, the last thing you want is to be reminded of the fact, let alone be faced with how it’s going to affect your family and friends.

Another issue with this particular ad is the woman showing her tattoo over her mastectomy scar. Yes, it’s brave for her to do it, but surely this is nudity? Would it have been allowed if she had just had a lumpectomy? Probably not.

If these types of ads must be shown, they should come with a trigger warning, so people can avoid watching them if they want to.

Marketing’s response

These types of ads are important. Not only do they help raise awareness of what services are available and what symptoms to look out for, they also offer people a degree of support as it helps them realise they aren’t the only ones going through a difficult time.

But it is a tricky one, as it’s clear they could also be triggering to some. Given most TV programmes nowadays come with various warnings before they start and helplines when they finish maybe it’s time advertising went the same way. But that raises the whole question of how far do you go? Should that include all food ads because someone might have problems with food? And what about if someone has just been in a car accident? Should there be a warning before all car ads?

We don’t know what the answer is but wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a serious debate over the next few years.

These ads certainly raise an interesting debate around about what could be deemed inappropriate in advertising, but we can’t help feeling trying to sanitise everything so that we don’t offend is just censorship by another name. And is there a risk we’re in danger of producing mediocrity in our quest to keep everyone happy?

Yes, advertisers have a responsibility to be considerate in terms of potential triggers, but we also need to take responsibility for our own actions. No one is forcing us to eat an ice-cream or buy a new car. That is all down to us. And let’s face it, the world isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, so let’s not make it out to be any different.

But as advertising itself has demonstrated, it does need to move with the times and reflect changing views and sensibilities, but it shouldn’t overcompensate for, dare we say it, a few naysayers.

And as far as Roald Dahl is concerned – let’s not airbrush out the past. It is what it is, and, if anything, should be used as a tool for learning and reflection rather than being consigned to the ‘don’t go there’ bin.