WRIST-SLAPPER'S PARADISE

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In Europe, creating ads that offend is more than an assault on 'taste and decency.' It could be a crime.

Castrating the Marlboro Man wasn't enough. If Joe Camel is the Pied Piper of emphysema and lung cancer, then those skinny Calvin Klein kids are live bait for bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Or so goes the logic of two Spanish Congresswomen, Cristina Almeida and Merca Rivadulla. In the name of "public health," the parliamentarians have attacked ads that glorify thinness, proposing a pact of "principles and codes" to break fashion advertising's grip on young minds. "Governments can't stand aside and watch the discreet but persistent threat to physical and mental health that current fashion trends have on young girls," they say.

Also in health's name, the European Union has begun phasing out tobacco advertising. Some countries curb liquor ads. Now a few government finger-waggers wave the flag of consumer protection in their putsch for an advertising landscape reminiscent of some hotel toilet seats - sanitized for your protection. Crying child endangerment, Greece bans toy commercials and Norway prohibits pitching to kids under 12. Threats from above have also silenced ads with claims of indecency, exploitation of human misery and offense to ethnic and religious sensibilities.

Faced with mandated alternatives, the ad industry is racing would-be regulators to the punchline, making "self-regulation" the name of the game. Whether it's Italy's Istituto dell'Autodisciplina Pubblicitaria or Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), all 15 EU members have industry-sponsored "self-regulatory bodies" to address consumer ad attacks. The ASA's 12-member jury weds Miss Manners and Judge Wapner to rule on issues like "taste and decency." When it upholds a consumer complaint, admakers better listen. Examples of censured ads? A Respect for Animals promotional poster by the agency Wallis Tomlinson showed a skinned fox head with the caption, "Do you have the face to wear fur?" The ASA ruled the ad "sickening . . . so shocking that it went beyond the bounds of acceptability for a poster and was likely to cause serious or widespread offense and distress." Poster and magazine ads by Lowe Howard-Spink for Diesel jeans had four young women dressed as nuns from the waist up, clasping rosaries and wearing jeans, backed by a denim-clad Virgin Mary. The ASA ruled that "to depict nuns as sexual beings was unacceptable" and that pimping the Holy Mother might offend.

Content regulation isn't just a PC thing; sometimes it's the law. According to a European Commission report, national legislation protects public interests like "health and safety . . . the rights of minors, pluralism in the media, protection against anti-social behavior . . . protection of culture and national spiritual heritage." But each state's interpretation varies on whether advertising is "an aspect of consumer protection or intellectual property, or is affected by public health or morality considerations." In Germany, for example, courts banned several "United Colors of Benetton" ads - images of Latin American child laborers, HIV-positive tattoos, a dead Bosnian soldier's clothing - based on their "exploitation of human misery." A recent pan-European scandal involved a "morality consideration" raised by a poster promoting The People vs. Larry Flynt. The film ad - with its depiction of a man crucified on a woman's pelvis - was rejected by the Motion Picture Association of America and sparked lively protest from Christians in France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. In Poland - where offending religious sensibilities can bring fines and two years in prison - the Pope's homeboys called for legal action. "The contents of this poster offends religious feelings and is against the freedom of conscience and religion, which violates articles . . . of the criminal code," said Cardinal Jozef Macharski, asking the Krakow prosecutor's office to consider the poster's distribution a criminal act.

Cultural sensitivity issues may be old hat to American agencies, but European creators are just now awakening to the polemics of racial stereotyping. In France, Kellogg's cereal boxes bore a comic strip with black cannibals throwing a white hunter into a cooking pot, then worshipping him upon finding cereal in his backpack. Consumers rebelled. In ethnically diverse France or the U.K., creators may consider race issues, but places like Norway (with its Slave Boy-brand cinnamon and Negro Lips ice cream) or Spain (where a thick-lipped, spear-chucking African with bloated belly sells candy - see p. 18) still reflect an arguably monocultural sensibility.

What if one country's ad angers elsewhere? Self-regulation is no longer a domestic affair. The European Advertising Standards Alliance now joins 23 self-regulatory bodies from 21 countries to address consumer ad complaints continent-wide. Issuing "Euro-ad alerts," it handles cross-border cases on behalf of consumers who were misled or offended by ads from other countries. While European regulations may stifle creativity ("Some of the best ads had people with cigarettes in their hands," says Tom Hudson, creative director at Leagas Delaney in London), some creators say cries of censorship are premature. They argue that responsible self-regulation is the smartest alternative to decrees from above. "There will always be a few crackpots out there who complain," says Hudson, "but really it's a question of common sense and gauging public tastes."

Crypt Keeper

Jeffrey Zeldman is a copywriter at Grey Entertainment in New York, whose highly entertaining personal Web site (www.zeldman.com) includes an Ad Graveyard, where he displays his and others' rejected work. The ad tomb opens with his politely declined bus poster promoting a Beatles reunion show on ABC, headlined: "They said it would take three more bullets." So what does Grey think about this? "Unofficially, they encourage it," says Zeldman, 40. "It's a cool place, because everyone has several things going." Zeldman, in fact, has an entire new-media career going. He designed The Ad Store's Web site, hosted a One Show chat, judged the Interactive entries at the Andys, and is a co-founder of the Web Standards Project, among other things. Zeldman, formerly at Devito/Verdi, first got involved with new media four years ago at Grey when the agency did the Batman Forever site. "I fell in love with the Web, and now my girlfriend is ludicrously tolerant of the hours I keep." Of his own site, he says, "A couple of lawyers have written to me, that's the worst of it. So why worry?" (TK)

Wisecrackin'

When we first saw the Partnership for a Drug-Free America spots starring brain-damaged Crackhead Bob, we said, "Hey, this guy is straight outta Howard Stern." It turns out he really is. Freelance writer Steve Montgomery and his O&M/N.Y. art director buddy, Mike Wilson, were listening to Stern one day when Crackhead Bob was on. "He was astounding," says Montgomery of the former drug fiend who was so crack-addled he had a massive stroke that left him with half a working noodle. "His story is numbingly powerful." "It was a falling-in-your-lap idea," adds Wilson. They got ahold of Bob, then got Palomar Films to shoot their scripts and Lost Planet to post the spots, all gratis. Then they went to the Partnership and "blew them away," says Montgomery, with emotional footage like the speech-challenged Bob horribly mangling a recitation of the ABC's (seen here). Was Bob tough to work with? Not at all, they say. "He has no short-term memory, but he understands everything," Montgomery insists. "He's the walking

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