Monday, 11 February 2013

Blasphemy By The Back Door: Andrew Copson speaks to Bristol AASS

Offensive or an expression of "if ice cream were a religion, it would be one of universal love, regardless of race, colour, creed or gender"?

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association,  was the main speaker for Bristol AASS' Reason Week and provided an entertaining and alarming insight into de facto blasphemy laws in advertising in the UK. Starting with a number of banned adverts for Antonio Federici ice cream (I'm not sure it exists, never seen it in shops!) Copson gave some examples of the Byzantine and often arbitrary ways in which the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) carry out their duty to take down any adverts "likely to cause serious and widespread offense". He highlighted the use of religious privilege by comparing two Phones4U adverts, one of which features Buddy Christ, which was banned, and the other a scary undead girl, which was not banned, despite the former receiving only 98 complaints whilst the latter attracted 525 complaints.

Andrew spoke about the BHA's experience trying to get the Atheist Bus Campaign off the ground. The now famous "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" had started life as "There isn't a God ..." A failure to get a positive ruling on the original text from the Committee of Advertising Practice (in no way related to the ASA...) lead to an effective ban on the original wording and so the "probably" was introduced. Copson said that this actually turned out to be beneficial, making the advert more lighthearted and playing on established advertising tropes such as the Carlsberg "probably the best lager" campaign (which I only realised when he pointed it out!)

He finished by speaking about how these sorts of regulations can privilege religions in the public space and lead to countervailing voices being silenced. As a consequence, the BHA will be starting a campaign to call out the chilling effect this can have on public discourse, so look out for that one soon!

The next Bristol AASS event is a Fishbowl Discussion in the Colston Arms on Tuesday at 8pm

Andrew Copson will be speaking at the AHS Convention in London on the 2nd March, so don't forget to book your tickets! Speakers also include Gita SahgalPolly Toynbee, Robin Ince, Jim Al-Khalili, Keith Porteus Wood and Natalie Haynes!

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