Crossing the Moral Minefield

By Dignam, Conor; McGill, Trisha | Marketing, June 22, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Crossing the Moral Minefield


Dignam, Conor, McGill, Trisha, Marketing


A call for 'moral marketing' has led to demands for advertisers to boycott controversial TV.

Thirty-three major UK advertisers, including Mars, Tesco, and Barclaycard, last week found themselves accused of "immoral marketing" when their ads were shown during Channel 4's screening of the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ.

The broadcast provoked one of the largest protests from viewers ever recorded, with almost 6000 complaints to Channel 4.

It led to an early day motion being put to the House of Commons by a cross-party group of MPs, who not only condemned the channel for screening the film, but attacked the companies which had shown their ads around it. The MPs demanded those advertisers "review urgently" their advertising policy.

The realm of the censors

According to Channel 4, many of the calls received were part of an organised campaign set up by members of the National Listeners and Viewers Association, formerly headed by Mary Whitehouse, the Roman Catholic journal Universe and a number of Muslims.

Broadcasters are used to dealing with the brick-bats of angry viewers and pressure groups, but for advertisers, who try to protect their brand from damaging associations, the resulting publicity is an anathema.

In the US, there is a growing trend for protest groups to target advertisers who promote their products around apparently 'immoral' programmes. And many of these groups are discovering that mainstream companies, keen to preserve the value of their brands, are more likely to compromise than enter a bitter contest over morality.

In the latest controversy, the influential right wing American Family Association took out ads in the New York Times urging consumers to boycott Unilever's products.

NYPD too Blue?

The protest centres on the company's advertising policy, including advertising during the cop series NYPD Blue, which the group claims has "opened the doors to sexual nudity on prime-time TV".

Unilever says it has no plans to change its policy but the AFA has a record of winning its battles, including forcing Pepsi to axe a multi-million dollar campaign in the late 80s, featuring pop singer Madonna, after accusations of blasphemy.

Now, leading UK companies such as Mars, Barclaycard, The Royal Bank of Scotland, Peugeot, BP, Tesco and Wilkinson Sword, all of which advertised on Channel 4 during the screening of The Last Temptation are finding themselves at the receiving end of the same warning of consumer retribution delivered to Unilever in America.

Conservative MP Michael Alison, spokesman for the Church of England in the House of Commons, who tabled the motion, says many people are often revolted by much of modern television.

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