How Offensive – The Banned Axe Advert and Patronising Christians

An advert about odours that “could offend” Christians has been pulled because of a single complaint from an angelically-concerned, single (male) individual. I’m offended his offence was taken seriously. Does my offence count?

From the Axe advert - How offensive that they would want to do anything else for eternity except dwell in servility and worship

Recently, it’s been very interesting watching advertising bodies get involved in metaphysical debates about the existence of god. For example, when the wonderful (but British) Ariane Sherine successfully managed to get an atheist message on busses – with powerful support from Richard Dawkins – they were told to change “There is no god” to “There is probably no god”. There were very bad arguments for this, but it’s fairly obvious why – ironically it is to cater to those who do believe, despite it being directed at those who obviously do not. Now, in South Africa, we’ve had something similar.

This 60 second Axe deodorant advert, which depicts scantily-clad female angels falling from heaven because they are fond of the nice odour, has been pulled by Advertising Standards Authority. This occurred after, as far I’ve read, a single male complained. According to The Daily Mail: “The male complainant told regulators he was angered by the suggestion that God’s messengers could literally fall for a man on the basis of his shop-bought fragrance.”

The Telegraph reports that the ASA agreed with the complainant. And here comes the (bad) metaphysics straight from an advertising authority on all matters god again. “The problem is not so much that angels are used in the commercial, but rather that the angels are seen to forfeit, or perhaps forego their heavenly status for mortal desires.” And the clincher: “This is something that would likely offend Christians in the same manner as it offended the complainant.”

I must say I love the little bit  discussing the “actual” problem: not that angels are used, by how they are used. That this is taken as a serious statement issued from an organisation which can influence sales for businesses is quite worrying.

But aside from this, you Christians should be proud. You have not only a spokesperson but a feelingsperson, who emulates all your unified feelings on matters metaphysical because we all know Christians feel exactly the same way about metaphysical and related religious matters. Because the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Pre-Lutheran Protestants, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Reformed Churches, Presbyterianism, Congregationalist Churches, Anabaptists, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostalism, Charismatics, African Initiated Churches, Millerites all have the same views on religious matters. Because we know you have these denominations due to your, um, agreements right? Because diversity equals unified thought in these matters, surely?

What is this rubbish? Firstly, why are we taking seriously the offence of one person who saw instances of creatures – who are not, you know, real – do something that contradicted his personal view on their behaviour? That’s like banning The Lord of the Rings movie because Aragorn’s speech was too long: Why? “Because the ‘real’ Aragorn wouldn’t speak that long, he was crass and not eloquent at all!” In both the advert and Lord of the Rings, we are engaging in entertainment media, not theological or strictly literal interpretations. Why are we even stooping to that level when everyone knows we’re not taking this advert’s depiction of theological matters seriously? It’s a deodorant advert, using universally known (fictional) beings, not an advert for the Bible Channel’s “The Lives of Angels” (not a real show, but why not, I ask? It’s as real as the angels themselves. In my head, it’s already won awards).

Notice that there wasn’t a flood of complaints: it was a singular complaint. Because most Christians, it seems, had better things to do than lose sleep over offending beings the majority of them don’t believe in anyway. But even if it was every single Christiain in the world, they would still be wrong because an argument based almost solely on offence is going to be a bad one.

And consider the potentiality argument: that is, the advert “could” offend Christians? So now we’re… what? We’re back to preventing “potential” offence? The problem with all “potential” arguments is that it also has the potential to do the opposite of what you imagine. So any advert could offend someone or some group: dog food could offend vegetarians, Pick ‘n Pay could offend Marxists, E! Entertainment does offend me. What makes the potential offence of Christians more important than say the offence to vegetarians? Any advert could potentially offend anyone – that’s the nature of the “potentiality” argument.

Furthermore, why are we taking “offence” seriously at all, in the 21st-century? It’s a useless modicum that is nothing more than a cry of outraged feelings shoved into a mildly coherent sentence: “I’m offended.” So what? There is especially no excuse for reacting seriously to offence on something like television where you can turn it off or change the channel. No one is forcing Mr Feelingsperson of All Christians to sit through 60 seconds of Angels Behaving Badly. Is he not adult enough to look away or prevent himself from engaging with it? It’s not often that banning indicates maturity or rationality. We live in a world where you can get pornography at the click of a button, watch The Human Centipede and buy god-bashing books at your local bookstore. There is plenty even ordinary, non-angel psychologists can be and are offended by – but do you know what we do? We just don’t watch The Human Centipede, we just fast-forward through adverts that offend/upset us and so on. That what grown-ups do.

I think what’s more offensive than banning an advert because of angels’ behaviour to protect Christians’ feelings is to presume Christians are not adult enough to handle their feelings themselves. How insulting that an advertising authority must step in like some parent to protect those poor Christians in case they have their feelings hurt. How about we treat them like adults and assume that, like anyone else, they know how to work a remote control on a TV or – you know – just don’t care about irrelevant metaphysical beings. (Please, ASA, tell us again your argument about the “actual” problem? That they would give up their “heavenly” what-now?”)

I would furthermore like to know HOW Mr Feelingsperson of All Christians (and the ASA) knows these “facts” about angels. And, furthermore, what does it matter even if angels existed and behaved as Mr Feelingsperson of All Christians believes them to be? That’s not what the advert is depicting: It’s not a documentary, it’s an ad for smelling nice.

The ban seems to me insulting to Christians and non-Christians on many levels, it’s badly argued, it’s unjustified and it’s childish. We are in a world that doesn’t harmonise with rainbows and hope, but one uncaring and dominated by markets and earthquakes. If you see something you don’t like: in many instances you should either ignore it, if its not going to physically harm anyone (like most targets of conservative Christian outrage), or take physical or legal action, if someone is going to be harmed.

Outcries from Christians on offence become vetoes on adult rational engagement. Are we going to ban adverts that depict drunk unicorns because “It’s not the use of unicorns that’s the problem, but that they would give up their noble, forest lifestyle that could offend”? Or shall we ban “Gary, The Toothfairy” adverts because “It’s not the use of toothfairies that the problem, but that toothfairies are crass, weird men in dresses”. This is what I read when I see statements like ones on angels being issued by the ASA.

I could say I’m offended by what the ASA has done, but I’m not going to. Instead, I will point to actual arguments I’ve made. Offence is useless and should have no place in our wider, public debates. That is an open space where you will, by its nature, more than likely be offended since people will depict and defend views contrary to yours. What matters is whether you can defend it rationally and with coherent arguments. Feelings by their very nature can’t tell you anything other than you happen to feel a certain way, whether pleasure or outrage, over something. But people have been offended by homosexuality, women’s equality and equal treatment of races and still are. Should we forgo our understanding and engagement in these areas because people feel strongly that such things are offensive? Surely not. Feelings are not an argument, not matter how strong it is. If it is good enough, you can usually translate your view into a coherent, rational argument. But simply asserting that because you have strong feelings, everything must bend to your Magento powers of offence, then you are being both juvenile and myopic.

If, by the time you reach adulthood, you don’t realise the world is not going to conform to your cozy little view of life, then it’s not up to some advertising authority to try rectify what is clearly a myopic and juvenile view. The ASA has turned into both a priest and parent here, justifying its paternalistic actions by appeals to theology and potentiality. Thank you, but I know how to use a remote control if I really don’t like an advert. Perhaps instead of issuing statements on theological matters, the ASA shouldd teach viewers how to flip to a different channel or fast-forward. Everyone wins.

5 thoughts on “How Offensive – The Banned Axe Advert and Patronising Christians

  1. I understand where you are coming from, but as a Catholic I would have to disagree with your entire argument. You’re basically saying that if someone is offended by certain material then to just turn away and pretend it isn’t there? That my friend is ignorance. If a catholic sees something as disrespectful to God and a sin, then that sin is harming the people who view it, making it our moral OBLIGATION to step forward and put a stop to this. It’s also incorrect for you to claim that angels are “fictional” when in fact they are as real as you and me. I know this through historical evidence, personal experience, and the Bible itself.
    “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your
    ways” Psalm 91:11
    Angels are servents of God who are lucky enough to experience the ultimate happiness, unity with our God, creator of the Universe itself. This ad is very insulting to Christians, yes ALL Christians, because it degrades the Faith itself. It degrades the faith by saying that Angels, who rejoice in the eternal love of God, would for some reason trade all of that for an impulse of lust? What message is that sending the youth? That it’s okay to be lustful because even angels are? I hope you consider what I’ve said, and pray about it.

    • @ Mary

      Angels are not real, Mary. As an adult, are you really going to say proudly that angels exist? There’s no evidence for it. Also, why historical evidence? Did they only exist in the past? There’s historical evidence for dinosaurs and ancient civilisations. But I’ve never seen one for angels. Furthermore, the Bible is not evidence since the Bible is verified by the Bible (and many, many other reasons). Again, I know Christians who are not offended by the advert, so your blanket claim is demonstrably false that “ALL” Christians feel a certain way about something (that’s actually psychologically impossible).

      Apparently the message we’re sending to our youth is that adults can also act like children and whine to have things changed, merely because they had the poor feelings hurt. Nice message you got there. Because, as you remember, you guys won, not those of us who actually think offence is nonsense. I’m not sure why you want to say it’s not OK to be lustful. Of course it is. There’s plenty of psychological evidence to tell us that its unhealthy to treat lust as something dirty or vile.

      Of course I’ve considered what I’ve said. Otherwise I wouldn’t have written this.

      Why on earth would I pray when its quite obvious I think the whole institution of organised theism is hokum?

  2. Pingback: Offended Atheist Gets Stupid Christian Billboard Taken Down | The Indelible Stamp

  3. Quote from Mary: “making it our moral OBLIGATION to step forward and put a stop to this”.

    If we lived in a Catholic theocracy where whatever Catholics (or rather, Catholics like Mary) thought was immoral was prevented by force, this would be the case. Like, say, the Taliban do.

    Fortunately this is only partly the case in the West. E.g. Catholics think abortion is immoral, but it is nonetheless legal. Unfortunately, it seems light-hearted use of angels in advertising is effectively illegal. Well done, Taliban – correction, Catholics.

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