Ad censors don’t curtail creativity, they encourage it

Charlie Spargo's picture
Jack Meggitt-Phillips

Jack Meggitt-Phillips, host and co-producer of The History of Advertising Podcast, which looks back at the stories behind some of the nation’s favourite ads, challenges the idea that advertising restrictions will stifle creativity.

Let’s kick off with a spot of sex.

The first edition of Cosmopolitan UK arrived in February 1972, and Cramer Saatchi was the ad agency tasked with promoting the launch. Its lead creative, Jeremy Sinclair, needed to find a way of communicating the appeal of the magazine to the newsagent-dwelling public.

He needed to let potential readers know that the magazine would be chock-a-block full with sex tips, alongside the usual articles on beauty, gossip, careers, fashion and relationships. And he needed to do it in a way which would reflect the playful, provocative nature of the magazine.

Jeremy devised a television campaign that showcased the many wondrous attributes of Cosmopolitan by having an ominous narrator answer various questions with page numbers….

"Where did she hear that about Richard Burton? Cosmopolitan page 82.

Where did she learn to cook like that? Cosmopolitan page 12.

How did she raise the money to pay for a car like this? Cosmopolitan page 60."

And so on. But when Jeremy tried to include a similar question that highlighted Cosmopolitan’s sex tips, he ran into difficulties with the censors. He was prohibited from broadcasting an ad which contained any explicit verbal reference to sex.

So, in order to get around this thorny issue, Jeremy wrote a scene which contained no dialogue about sex at all. The final shot of the ad is simply a couple sitting up in bed, with a lady telling an  intrigued and satisfied man a page number from Cosmopolitan. 

Making an advert "infinitely better"

The message and the suggestion of the scene is clear, however, and thanks to the subtleties of the language, the ad made it to television sets across the nation. Speaking to The History of Advertising Podcast, Jeremy described himself as being “eternally grateful” to the censors for making the ad “infinitely better” with their interference.

The story behind this immensely successful campaign shows the value which censors can play in boosting creativity. It shows how limitations can force creatives to think outside the box.

Other tales from adland’s history also show us that restrictions often improve campaigns. For instance, if it weren’t for restrictions, we wouldn’t have had the brilliantly surreal Benson and Hedges swimming pool ad, or the Silk Cut ads which reminded us that smoking can actually be pretty bloody cool.

How will the ASA affect advertising?

The role that censorship plays in creativity is set to come to the fore again in the coming months, following the recent headline-grabbing announcement from the Advertising Standards Authority. The body has declared that, from June 2019, all harmful gender stereotypes in ads will be banned.  

This decision raises numerous questions (namely, how is it going to be enforced and who will be the judge of it?), and also shows how much of an impact the body can have on the creative future of the industry.

However, instead of shying away or protesting against the decision, creatives should embrace the challenge for the opportunity it represents.  

Like most restrictions, the ASA’s most recent ban isn’t just a stand against gendered social perceptions, it’s a stand against creative laziness. Gendered or otherwise, ads often rely heavily on stereotypes, because it’s easy and because it’s a way of getting around the bother of creating original characters. Even if the ad ban doesn’t go any further than make creatives think twice before trotting out another tired cliché, then it will have been worth it.

Creatives shouldn’t feel curtailed by censors; they should feel emboldened by them.