TURING: Ads beware

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More often than not, the fuss is unnecessary. But, that does not relieve the media companies from their responsibility

Marshall McLuhan, the communications theorist, believed that advertising was the greatest art form of the twentieth century.

The description could perhaps be made more accurate if one replaces his superlative adjective with a more plausible alternative -‘greatest’ with ‘most controversial.’

Look no further than the confines of an already hypersensitive ‘gay community’ (an identity which Turing will take to task in a later column) to see where the problems lie.

Within the last fortnight two influential media companies had to explain their marketing decisions to their respective audiences.

Last week, many readers would have been surprised to find two articles on this very website explaining why the editorial board chose to accept prominent banner advertisements from the Tories, when many of their members are still openly, and worse, unabashedly homophobic (Michael Ancram, anyone?).

This week, Channel 4, the largely gay-friendly terrestrial broadcaster, came under criticism for carrying the promotional advertisements of the controversial Alpha Course run by an evangelical Christian group in Britain.

At first sight, even the astute capitalist and the indifferent libertarian would wonder what all the fuss is about.

To be honest, as an outside observer, your columnist would not have even realised the presence of the adverts on this very website, were it not for the news article announcing its presence, and the editorial by PinkNews.co.uk editor Tony Grew explaining the management’s position on this issue.

Any advertisement, by definition, is just that. Just because a medium carries an advertisement does not mean that the product being advertised is editorially endorsed by the medium concerned.

For example, most medical journals tend to carry pharmaceutical advertising, and more often than not, these are accompanied by editorials highly critical of the very industries being advertised.

Where editorial integrity is preserved, the advertising also generates revenue for the journal concerned.

The responsibility, it seems, lies with the reader who must exercise his or her reason to see where the dividing lines between editorials and advertisements.

It would be wrong, and quite frankly ridiculous, to expect a broadcaster, or a newspaper to carry an editorial disclaimer every time they also carry an advertisement – even though the risks of offending many a sizable minority (and sometimes majority) of the population always exist.

Provided the Alpha Course advertisement is not unlawful, Channel 4 has every right to broadcast the 60-second commercials in question.

Besides, if the commercial was homophobic, by definition, it would also become unlawful, although this may not always be the case, even in Britain.

Having said all this, to expect such ideal conditions to perennially hold is to relieve the media companies, and yes, the advertisement industry and the companies involved, of their social responsibility.

For example, would it be appropriate for this website to carry an advertisement that claims to ‘cure’ homosexuality?

Would Channel 4 be comfortable in carrying a commercial that advocated substituting antiretrovirals with vitamins (as some quacks recommend) to treat HIV/AIDS?

Questions of law aside, the answer would surely be a resounding ‘no’ in both cases.

There is no easy way to conclude what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to advertisements – what is offensive to one group does not necessarily make it wrong or unlawful.

The gay community may sometimes be too quick to scream homophobia, and sometimes unnecessarily so – remember the scandal surrounding Notes on a Scandal?

At other times, there may be a matter of genuine concern, even though a heterosexist patriarchal world might not construe it as such, and the responsibility therefore befalls the gay press to highlight the issues at stake.

But proscribing advertisements is a draconian move that impinges on freedom of speech, and is often not the best way to address societal concerns – certainly not with the Conservatives, and probably not with the Alpha Course.

The editorials on this website explaining their stance on advertisements was admirable, and with regard to the Alpha Course, there has been enough coverage in the media drawing attention to its non-inclusivity and homophobia, particularly in the gay press.

The good thing about Britain is that the free and independent press is highly active in highlighting instances where the dividing line is blurry, and whence a debate is deemed an absolute necessity.

But just as we celebrate the existence of an independent press, we should also respect their editorial integrity without launching into instantaneous attacks every time they carry an advertisement, or for that matter, an article that we disagree with.

Besides, sensitivity to issues is achieved best through reasoned debate-not just by crying foul.