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The asinine axing of Axe

The debate marketers, and particularly advertisers, need to be having right now is not whether the Axe "Angels" commercial should be banned but rather whether a horrendously expensive and one-sided system of adjudication should be allowed to continue. [video]
What I am talking about is the ability of South Africa's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to act on one single complaint and, among other bizarre things, declare the accused guilty until proven innocent.

Take the current debate over the Axe commercial. One citizen among South Africa's 50 million complained to the ASA, which then took a committee decision to ban the ad on the basis that it would offend Christians.

Big assumption

The question that needs to be raised is whether the ASA actually asked a representative sample of the millions of Christians in this country whether they were offended. It didn't, of course - it just assumed Christians would be offended.

The ASA, as it has done countless times in the past, has allowed one citizen of this country to speak on behalf of millions without any mandate whatsoever.

What makes matters worse is that, when in the past an advertisement was withdrawn pending a judgment from the ASA and then found to be acceptable, that single complainant was simply thanked for his or her interest, told that the ad has been found to be acceptable and nothing else.

Meanwhile the advertisers, who were been found to be completely innocent, ended up stuck with a five-figure legal bill and hours, if not days, of time wasted in giving evidence and providing supporting documentation to the ASA. And who pays? Well, eventually the consumer does, because all those costs of defending advertising are eventually factored into cost of sales.

It's a national sport.

One only needs to talk to some of our cellular network operators to hear horror stories of how single individuals make a hobby of studying the ASA rule book and sending in one complaint after the other. One particular man was found to have been responsible for 75% of all the complaints about cellphone advertising in a year.

It's become a sort of national sport for people with too much time on their hands and who lack the capacity to do the crossword or Sudoku.

A question I often ask is why the ASA is so much more draconian than, for example, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission? The answer is three-fold.

The first is paranoia about Government talking of an advertising regulatory role if the ad industry fails to adequately self-regulate. Which is an asinine argument because, through a section of the Trade Practices Act which has been around since 1949, Government is quite entitled to intervene with regard to advertising. It has often stated that the last thing it wants to do is get involved in deciding whether advertising is offensive or not.

Legal beagles

The second reason is that the ASA is no longer a body made up of members of the advertising and marketing industries but largely of lawyers who have no interest other than applying the letter of the law. Which is quite simple when it comes to misleading advertising but extremely difficult when it comes to offensive advertising. This requires lawyers to play God in determining what might be offensive to the public of SA.

The third reason is apathy and lack of backbone. I cannot tell you how many calls I get from irate advertising agencies which are steamed up at having their advertising banned for being offensive. They are expecting me to pick up the cudgels for them instead of getting involved with the ASA and voting out the committees that give them so much grief.

They don't, of course. Within a day or two, they are back at the grindstone with no time or inclination to get involved in anything but their day-to-day chores.

Follow the money, folks

Big brands also just take it on the chin. Pay the big bucks to their lawyers and pass on the costs to the consumer. It is quite beyond me why no big brand has yet had the balls to launch a civil case against a consumer who has had a complaint turned down by the ASA but who has in the process cost the innocent company a couple of hundred thousand rands in legal fees?

They won't, of course. Because they don't want to be seen to be heavy-handed with their customers and, what the heck, they'll just pass the costs on to the consumer, anyway. It's easier.

So, it would be wrong to blame the ASA alone for the insanity of a situation where a single citizen of this country can effectively cause an entirely innocent party to lose significant amounts of money and time and get away with no more than a polite letter and a pat on the head.

Apathetic agencies

The advertising industry is very much to blame, as are their clients. And, as always, it's the consumer who pays the price.

The whole process is undemocratic, unbusinesslike, grossly unfair and a complete charade, if you ask me.

As the makers of AXE, Unilever, so rightly pointed out in a newspaper statement, a similar commercial featuring angels run by Virgin Mobile was found not to be offensive, on top of which there have been dozens of movies and cartoons depicting fallen angels, funny angels, naughty angels and all sorts of other compromised angels, yet none of these have been banned.

The reason is simple. It's hard work convincing the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to ban a programme or the media or court of law, for that matter, to ban a cartoon.

But, getting the ASA to do something about an advertisement is the easiest thing in the world. A simple process for any Tom, Dick or Harry with a bee in his bonnet. It's worth a shot - it only takes a minute or two and if it doesn't work - well, there's nothing to lose.

Guilty till proved innocent

When you look at how well all South Africans, whether they be private citizens, corporations or state employees, are protected by the constitution through a complex judicial process based on the premise of the accused being innocent until proved guilty, the way the ASA handles things comes across a very different.

For a start, the ASA system is based on the premise of being guilty until proven innocent and, when proved innocent, the accuser walks away free as a bird while the innocent picks up all the costs.

Hardly surprising that the ASA comes across as nothing more than a pompous and paranoid kangaroo court.

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For More list updated at 28 October 2011.

About Chris Moerdyk: @chrismoerdyk

Apart from being a corporate marketing analyst, advisor and media commentator, Chris Moerdyk is a former chairman of Bizcommunity. He was head of strategic planning and public affairs for BMW South Africa and spent 16 years in the creative and client service departments of ad agencies, ending up as resident director of Lindsay Smithers-FCB in KwaZulu-Natal. Email Chris on and follow him on Twitter at @chrismoerdyk.
Monika Kriel
The issue, Marcelle, is not whether we should allow one person to voice their opinion, but whether we should allow the ASA to act on only ONE (or a handful of) complaint(s). How is it democratic to allow one person to decide for the whole country what we should view?
Posted on 27 Oct 2011 13:32
Ryan Goldblatt
The issue is that people have a right to be offended. At some point in your life someone is going to say something that you find offensive, and whether it's religious or not, is irrelevant. As long as it doesn't qualify as hate speech you should be grown up to deal with it without bawling your eyes out.
Posted on 27 Oct 2011 14:06
Jawwaad Akleker
Hi ChrisFew issues with your article1. A representative sample survey is not as cheap as you make it out to be. Who pays for the survey? The commission or the advertiser?2. Who says the democratic view of Christians in South Africa is not offensive to say 20% of Christians? Majority view does not necessitate it being correct or inoffensive.
Posted on 27 Oct 2011 14:48
Ayanda Tshabalala
I am a Christian and this ad never bothered me at all... sometimes i think people shouldn't voice their own personal discomfort and opinion on public domain and make it look like they are spokespeople on behalf of all of us.... and i really liked the ad....can we just stop being overly sensitive already...
Posted on 27 Oct 2011 15:23
Walter Pike
Chris - I completely agree with you. This decision is bizarre and go along with a whole long stream of ridiculous decisions over the years.I have for many years questioned the relevance of this body and the manner in which they make their rulings. I wonder whether the fact that the ASA offends me is sufficient reason for them to consider banning themselves
Posted on 27 Oct 2011 17:51
Seleso Moledi
Point number 1 "Christianity is not about worship of angels, it's about the human race being reconciled back to God the Creator through His One and Only Son Jesus Christ.Revelation 22:8,9 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things.And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, "Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book.Worship God!" Colossians 2:18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen,and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.worship of angels is a NO..NO..I personally i don't agree with the marketing strategy of "axe" implying that by using their product you will suddenly get attension from all the lovely ladies out there.Well you guessed it i'm not 15-25 so on that issue i'm going to say,know who you are and project that out, if someone likes you "cool beans", if not.. was not meant for ya be a gent/lady, your time will come life is about seasons, just may not be yours yet.On that note just thought the marketing profile of "axe" could share a light on how they came to make the ads..Target customer profileAge: 15-25Gender: MaleMentality: Mainstream.Perception: Peer influencedSocio-economic Class: Low Geography: Anywhere males and females are presentSexuality: HeterosexualInternationally this brand targets male aged 15-25. They still love the unique Axe fantasy of “the woman making the first move”. Young men in this age group are impatient for their first experience of women. They dream about being able to seduce women without too much effort, because they are not as confident as they seem. Their main topics of interest are sex, music, football and having a laugh.The brand has its brand values of Cool, Fashionable and Stylish. And world over, the brand shoots to its core values. The biggest strength of this brand is the underlying message or the DNA, which is that the brand users are High on Confidence and always for the Axe users, “Girls Makes The First Move”. I think the biggest competitive advantage of this brand is its complete monopoly over this brand proposition. All its campaigns revolve round this central theme of Seduction where Girl makes the first move.following reference from
Posted on 27 Oct 2011 18:42
Bob Lewis
Look Chris, it's just a bloody TV ad and not worth an essay.And in this backward nation (60% of which apparently believe in hell) you have to expect this kind of superstitious cretinism. MMmm - sexy angels, that's a quite a turn-on - love the way they shed their wings. It's a clever ad for me - although it's possible that the lower end of the market that Axe is aimed at, may also be the most religion-wrapped.. Whichever fool complained should ask him/herself how they came to be.
Posted on 27 Oct 2011 19:15
John Gabriel
What about the Cadbury tvc set in a Buddhist monastery? Probably more offensive or maybe Buddhists have a sense of humour and don't take themselves too seriously.Can I as an individual complain to the ASA about political party ads and get them withdrawn? Oh what fun that would be.
Posted on 28 Oct 2011 09:23
Thulile Moticoe
I am really surprised at the decision that was taken by the ASA over the add. I am a Christian and I have to say that add gave me a very good laugh. I applaud the agency for being so creative and having to come up with such and intersting way of communicating the effects of AXE, "even angels will fall" - love the pay-off line. We seem to forget one thing as people, adds are meant to be a comunication strategy about the products offering in a funny way so that it remains top of mind and prefered brand when you go shopping. Advertising is supposed to convince you to buy the product and not to be perceived as offensive.Yes there have been adds that should'nt have made it to the actual broadcasting because of their stupidity. However maybe we just need to look at things a little bit lighter and stop being so sensitive. There are a lot of thing to worry about than that AXE add that actually had nothing offensive on it. I still think the ASA needs to let us know how they decided to pull the add based on one persons opinion about angels. I wish there was a platform we can use as consumers to also complain about the decisionthat was taken by the ASA. And as a christian I grew up being told that the only person that we need to worship is Jesus Christ who is the son of GOD our father. Angels are creatures that we were taught by our parents that they are always around us but not to be worshiped. In that case, was it really offensive to use angels on the add??? Not at all.Its a pitty that it would actually take a lot of court cases and battles to fight the decision that was taken by ASA.
Posted on 28 Oct 2011 09:46
Jacques van den Bergh
There seems to be much debate about where Angels are Christians etc but I think many of the post miss Chris' point. We are allowing a small minority to make our decision for us. We give away our right to choice and power by not standing up for the right to be not politically correct.
Posted on 28 Oct 2011 11:36
Mike Taberner
Interesting read Chris, almost certainly the direct cause of reaction instead of reason. It is a pity that such drastic action could be taken over just one or two complaints.
Posted on 28 Oct 2011 13:03
Tony Starks
@ Bob Lewis: "And in this backward nation (60% of which apparently believe in hell) you have to expect this kind of superstitious cretinism."Bob, the "backward nation" didn't pull the ad - the ASA did.
Posted on 31 Oct 2011 10:03