Why the ASA’s Rules Spell Doom for Humor in Advertising

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Last month, two ads, one each for Volkswagen and Philly cheese-maker, Mondelez, became the first to be banned under the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) new rules banning harmful gender stereotypes in advertising. The former showed a woman with a pram while two men floated around in space; the latter, two bumbling young dads, distracted by food, leaving their children on a sushi-style conveyor belt.

Accusations of the regulator’s overzealousness in applying new rules are rife. That the ASA is a humorless censor – that it overreached its remit and is stifling creativity – have become largely accepted knowledge. One commentator went as far as saying the ruling ‘raises the question of what sort of society we want to be’.

The Philadelphia ad was funny. Not worthy of a fringe show, sure. Just a half-snorted, eye-rolling breath of laughter. Which is about as funny as an ad should be. The VW ad was never meant to be funny, so we will park that. But under the gaze of the (ASA) regime, questions about brands attempting humor must be asked. Comedic value is beside the point.

Advertising’s relationship with comedy is long and inconsistent. Lots of creatives think they’re funny. But it goes without saying that consumers relate with comedy – it makes them feel something. Perhaps the first noted example is the 1926: ‘They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano but When I Started to Play!’ – the story of a man whose friends at a party didn’t expect him to be able to play piano, but thanks to the music lessons sold in the ad, he could. The ASA would probably ban it in an instant for suggesting men are musically inferior.

Or, slightly more recently, the Levis 501 Drugstore ad, in which a chirpy lad purchases a condom from a male pharmacist, only for the lad to turn up at the pharmacist’s house that evening to take his daughter out. ‘Watch pocket created in 1873, abused ever since’. Banned banned, banned. Suggesting that young men think about sex is a damaging stereotype, however true it might be.

These are classic and discourse has certainly moved on. This is not to justify stereotypes. More to raise an awareness that much humor is based on stereotypes. Many of us know a bumbling young father. Portraying that in an ad is, whether the ASA likes it or not, more relatable, more human, more resonant with consumers. But damaging? Harmful? To who?

Stereotypes have a bad reputation and for good reason. They can facilitate intergroup hostility and give rise to toxic prejudice while justifying injustice and discrimination. No one is questioning that stereotypes can be a bad thing. But when questionably harmful ads fall foul of the rules, brands need to learn from the world of professional services and partake in a bit of risk management.

Only three people complained about the Philly ad. At what point does the offense of a vocal minority outweigh the sense of humor of the general population? It would seem we’re already there.

The natural response to this regulation will be a barrage of staid creative. But that’s an opportunity for brands willing to take a creative risk. Take Channel 4 and Nationwide, which have each gone as far as using stand-up in recent campaigns. Both are so vanilla as to be unmemorable. Fear of the regulator keeps them in the woke lane.

Some of the most effective and memorable adverts are those that are funny. Consumers want to be entertained, not pitched to. But conversely, you can entertain a million people and not sell one of them.

The risk of pushing limits is that your ad will get banned in a flurry of publicity. All press is good press except when it isn’t. Just consider the irony that, though banned, these ads will have generated media exposure far beyond that bought. Knowing your audience is paramount. Remember, you’re making ads for consumers, not the regulator. What one person finds funny will offend another. That’s just comedy.

The precautionary principle tells us to balance risk with reward. Consider when a comedian gets up on stage. They know not every joke will land, but risk ‘dying’ on stage for the reward of entertaining the audience. The difference here is that a brand’s reputation is at stake.

We use our Bravery Index – a set of biometric tools that is able to accurately measure people’s emotional reactions to audio-visual stimuli in a range of different formats and stages of production. Tools such as Galvanic Skin Response measurement, eye tracking, and facial coding measure the emotional intensity, the nature of the emotion and the visual cues that trigger a response.

Brands don’t have a local venue to hone their set before going on stage. Likewise, they can’t focus group a joke. But they do have biometrics. Consumers are the ultimate arbiter as to what is funny, what is damaging, what is harmful. It’s patronizing for the ASA to suggest they don’t know what’s good for them.

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