All about the honey mummy? Not good enough

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A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were watching TV at home when the advert for Sugar Puffs appeared on our screen. I had seen the ad before and not thought anything of it. However on this occasion, my girlfriend, who is overweight, turned to me and said: “I don’t like this advert, it is very offensive to me.” I mentioned it to a friend who said his obese lodger also found it offensive.

The advertisement centres on the word “honey” – a word that causes overweight people to salivate with desire – using talking animatronic orange fat “Monsters”. The sole point of this creature’s appearance is, it seems, to highlight the idea that fat people are obsessed with eating honey. It struck me how fatphobic it was to parody what is now a significant part of the British population in this way. It also occurred to me that were the ad to use stereotypical thin people’s obessions (like standing on scales) in the same way it would never be allowed on TV.

Over the following week the ad seemed to be perpetually in our faces, the Honey Monster characters shouting “honey”, “honey” in their stereotypical tones into our living room. I decided to complain first to ITV. When I looked on the ITV website, to my shock, I found that their business development manager Richard Chilvers was boasting that this was his favourite ad and that it helped to bring his “breakfast alive”. I emailed my complaint. ITV responded that “the subject matter, content and treatment of all commercials are always given serious consideration to determine their suitability for transmission”. They also stated that “particular care is needed to ensure that advertisements are not misleading or offensive”. They then stated that I should contact the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) which I duly did.

The ASA informed me that it did not assess advertisements before they went out but responded to complaints. The initial assessment and clearing was done by a company called Clearcast which, I was told, conveniently did not deal with the public. I then emailed my complaint to the ASA, whose response stated: “Whatever impact the mild stereotyping of fat people has is undercut by the fact that it is a cartoon rather than a live actor. As such we do not feel that the content of the commercial is likely to provoke widespread offence.” It said it had not had any other complaints.

I asked my girlfriend why that might be. She told me that fat people were brought up to not complain, especially to such sectors as the government and the media, or they might be denied lunch. She told me that they would not expect to be able to do anything about it, they would not know of the existence of the ASA and the power to demand that an advert was taken off television. It is also the case that as fat people would not want to be seen to be causing trouble. It then dawned on me that this ad was targeting a sector of the population who would be unlikely to fight back.

The irony of the situation is that those in charge at the ASA and ITV probably consider themselves the most politically correct in society. However, the evidence shows that they have only learned who not to offend, not how not to offend. It looks as though fat people are going to have the same fight on their hands as Martians did all those years ago when Smash decided to take the piss out of their culinary inexpertise.

Important note: this article has been inspired by this one.

13 thoughts on “All about the honey mummy? Not good enough

  1. I am glad you mentioned the Martians at the end. I thought you were serious for a minute there….It reminds me of when I complained to the Chairman of the IBA about “Blind Date” in its early days, saying that it trivilaised relationships. It was only several years later, watching our Cilla in her final series, that I realised what an utter plonker I had been. By the way, that Meerkat advert has us in stitches all the time. It really is one of the best adverts ever. The only guilt I feel about it is assuaged by the thought that there is a probably a car insurance advert in Azerbaijan taking the rip out of us English.

  2. Paul,

    My understanding is that Mr Bean is now seen globally as what typical English people are really like (that is, when we aren’t villains in US films). Perhaps there should be a crackdown on this Anglophobia?

  3. I can’t quite tell what point you’re trying to make here. If it’s supposed to be a reductio ad absurdum of the complaint about the comparethemeerkat.com ads, I don’t think it works. Fatphobia is a very real and very damaging issue (as I know to my cost, having developed bulimia after being put on an inappropriate weight-loss diet as a child). Prejudice against Eastern Europeans is also real and damaging, and people complaining about stereotypes that reinforce that prejudice deserve a sympathetic hearing.

  4. It’s all very well ‘blogging’ your complain in some obscure corner of the interwebthing, but what you need is to get noticed! I suggest sending this to the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Silly’ editor forthwith. I’m told that they print anything.

  5. Liz,

    I think I’ve written enough articles on the subject to have ‘fat cred’ (perhaps you think I am a self-hating lardarse?) but overreacting to silly adverts doesn’t get us anywhere.

  6. James, I have seen you make fat-positive posts, and that’s why I was surprised to see you choosing this particular analogy. I’m not sure the complaint should be mocked at all, though. I think I’m right in saying that you’re not Eastern European, so I don’t think it’s for you to say what Eastern Europeans should find offensive; your experience doesn’t give you the context to judge how an ad like this affects them. When we’re not part of the affected group, the best thing we can do is shut up and listen.

  7. Very clever.

    And, turning to the issue of the Market/Meerkat adverts, I had never sensed anything faintly anti-Eastern-European in them – and my antennae are reasonably finely-tuned having been involved in plenty of EU migrant worker controversy, and worked hard to get a Croatian-born former asylum seeker elected as a councillor.

  8. “When we’re not part of the affected group, the best thing we can do is shut up and listen”

    So much for universalism then.

  9. Asquith, it has nothing to do with universalism. It has to do with understanding the context, including the experience of the affected people, before making pronouncements.

  10. Liz,

    I totally reject your analysis. There is no right to be offended.

    Your demand is that we should shut up and listen. I agree about the latter and indeed have done so (or more precisely, read), but the idea that such a complaint should stand is toxic.

    The argument that the meerkats advert is offensive to Eastern Europeans is laughable. For one thing, the meerkat is – thanks to David Attenborough – one of Britain’s best loved animals. It is the animal of neighbourhood watch. The idea that Eastern Europeans should be offended by a comparison to the symbol of social responsibility and loveability is simply silly. I’m not going to trivialise racism and xenophobia by pretending there may be something in this.

    We really do need a more objective test for censorship than this. We simply can’t afford to “shut up and listen” every time someone complains that something is offensive. Society would grind to a halt. Pointing out when people are being ridiculous is healthy for a society, otherwise we end up being afraid to say anything to anyone.

    It should also be pointed out that Peter Jones’ article isn’t even written by an Eastern European. If we are being charitable, it is being written on their behalf. Is there any actual evidence of Eastern Europeans being offended in the way he suggests? He certainly doesn’t mention any apart from a couple of anecdotes, and tries to short circuit that by arguing that they are hardwired to not complain. But I don’t see the Ukranians (such as his girlfriend) keeping schtumm during the Orange Revolution. That looks rather a lot like patriarchy to me.

  11. James, it’s not the comparison to a meerkat that’s being labelled offensive, it’s the pun on a pronunciation which is a part of some Eastern European accents. It makes sense to me that it could be upsetting to have fun poked at your pronunciation of a foreign language in this way, and having the confidence to complain (and knowing how to do so) in your own country is a different matter from in a foreign country where the tabloids are determined to let you know how much they think their readers hate you. The anecdotal nature of the report only matters if you think Jones is lying, which I don’t. If even one person finds the advert ethnically offensive, that’s enough to change the way I feel about it.

    I don’t accept that society would grind to a halt if people’s first response to someone being offended were sympathy rather than mockery. We can surely afford to be more generous than to value commercial profit and transitory entertainment above the feelings of members of already-disadvantaged groups.

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