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.