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ASA Ruling on Channel Four Television Corporation

Channel Four Television Corporation t/a Channel 4

124 Horseferry Road
London
SW1P 2TX

Date:

3 October 2012

Media:

Poster

Sector:

Leisure

Number of complaints:

9

Agency:

4creative

Complaint Ref:

A12-197451

Background

These ads were previously considered by the ASA Council in February 2012, at which time the ASA had received 372 complaints about the campaign. The ASA Executive assessed the ads and recommended to the Council that the complaints did not warrant investigation. The Council agreed that recommendation. The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain and eight co-complainants sought Independent Review of Council's decision and, as a result, the case was re-opened and investigated.

Summary of Council decision:

Five issues were investigated, four were Upheld and one Not upheld.

Ad

Four posters for the Channel Four documentary, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings:

a. The first poster featured a close-up of a young boy looking directly at the camera. Large text across the ad stated "BIGGER. FATTER. GYPSIER".

b. The second poster showed a man leading a horse across a field. Caravans were visible behind a fence in the background. Large text across the ad stated "BIGGER. FATTER. GYPSIER".

c. The third poster showed two young women wearing low-cut bra tops. Large text across the ad stated "BIGGER. FATTER. GYPSIER".

d. The fourth poster showed three young girls dressed for their first Holy Communion standing in front of a caravan. Large text across the ad stated "BIGGER. FATTER. GYPSIER".

Issue

The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain (ITMB) and eight other complainants challenged whether:

1. the ads were offensive because they believed they were racist, denigratory and portrayed Gypsies and Travellers in a negatively stereotypical way;

2. the ads were irresponsible because they believed they depicted negative stereotypes of Gypsies and Travellers and endorsed prejudice against them; and

3. ads (a), (c) and (d) were likely to cause physical, mental or moral harm to children from Gypsy and Traveller communities, including those featured in the ads, because the ITMB believed they portrayed them in a negatively stereotypical way.

4. The ITMB, who understood that one of the young women featured in ad (c) was under 16 years of age, challenged whether the ad was irresponsible and harmful because they believed it depicted a child in a sexualised way.

5. The ITMB, who believed that the children featured in ad (d) had been unfairly portrayed in an adverse and offensive way, challenged whether the ad breached the Code because they believed that the advertiser did not have written permission to portray them in that manner.

CAP Code (Edition 12)

Response

Channel Four Television Corporation (Channel 4) said they were required by their public service remit to provide a broad range of high quality and diverse programming that appealed to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society and was creative, educational and distinctive. They said, as a responsible advertiser, they understood that their marketing communications needed to comply with the CAP Code, but said they had a right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and that the law provided that any restrictions on Article 10 must be proportionate.

Channel 4 said one of the most high profile examples of how it had fulfilled its remit was the observational documentary series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings (the series) which provided a unique insight into the Irish Traveller, Gypsy and Roma communities, which historically had been wary of media attention. The series followed members of the Gypsy and Traveller community and explored issues around work, money, life on the road, family, health, education and the cultural differences and the relationship between the different travelling communities living in the UK. This was set against the background of the communities' preparations for key festivities in the community calendar including weddings, christenings, communions and other celebrations. They said the series had provided a greater understanding of the traditions and practices of the communities and shown the challenges, including prejudice and hostility, the community faced from those that did not understand their culture. They said the series had raised greater awareness of the communities and helped to educate viewers on a community about which little was previously known. They said the first series of the show, which was based on a one-off Cutting Edge documentary, had been broadcast in 2011 and had been an overnight phenomenon, attracting an average of 8.5 million viewers. They said the series had sparked much debate about Gypsies' and Travellers' lifestyles, mostly around how little was previously known about those communities and what was known was often based on inaccurate pre-conceptions and stereotypes, which the series had attempted to correct. They said the series to which the ads related was broadcast in early 2012 and was the second such series.

Channel 4 said the series title was an adaptation of the title of the original Cutting Edge documentary, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, on which the series was based, and which was intended to be a play on the words of the title of the globally successful feature film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. They said that film title had been embraced in many forms in popular culture with restaurants, series and stage shows being named with the "My Big Fat ..." prefix. They said the phrase "Big Fat ..." was originally intended as a light-hearted and affectionate reference to the wedding dress phenomena among some Gypsy and Traveller brides who tried to out-do each other with extravagant wedding dresses and wedding receptions. They said all the series' contributors were made aware of the title when approached to take part in filming and the title had generally been embraced positively by the Gypsy and Traveller community. Channel 4 said they had not been asked by Ofcom to defend the title nor had there been any breaches of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code in relation to the original documentary or the two series. They said they had used the word Gypsy in another programme title without attracting complaints to, or investigation by, Ofcom over the use of the title.

Channel 4 said, following the success of the first series, it was decided that the second series would have a billboard poster campaign which would carry the message that the second series would be bigger and better than the first. They said the second series had more fascinating and previously unknown insights into the Gypsy and Traveller community and would continue to reveal some of the most extravagant weddings seen in the community, which were a trademark of the first series. Series two also contained more episodes than series one.

Channel 4 said the campaign centred on using real and intimate photographic portraits of Gypsy and Traveller life in a journalistic, reportage style that reflected the journalistic intent of the series. They had specifically chosen a photographer who had long experience taking photographs of the Gypsy and Traveller community and who therefore had an understanding and respect for them. The final images were selected by the agency on the basis of the strongest visual images, the representation of the different generations reflected across the series and the inclusion of some iconic images from the programmes. The marketing strap-line "BIGGER. FATTER. GYPSIER" was then added. They said the finished ads appeared widely in magazines and newspapers as well as on billboards and other displays.

Channel 4 said the choice of the strap-line came from the series title itself and was intended to be an affectionate back-reference to the series title which was well known by then. It also conveyed the message that series two would be bigger and better than the first and also that it had seven episodes, compared to five in the original. They argued that, when assessed objectively and in the context of each poster and the campaign as a whole, the marketing strap-line would have been widely understood by its audience as suggesting they could expect more in series two than series one. They said the word "Gypsier" was therefore being used as a comparative adjective rather than a noun and, while it appeared non-sensical they argued using examples, that it was common for advertising to adapt words in such ways, when the audience understood the thematic connection.

Channel 4 said the definition of the term Gypsy was not clear-cut, but maintained that it was neither pejorative nor offensive in itself. They said they had undertaken research before series one was broadcast into how various communities should be described, as they were aware that some people took issue with the word Gypsy being used, when many of the contributors who featured were Irish Travellers. They said town and country planning law provided a statutory definition of "Gypsies" and the Court of Appeal had in 1994 updated that definition to mean "Persons who wander or travel for the purpose of making or seeking their livelihood" and it was this broad definition that was used by the government. They said, however, they also accepted that both Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies had been recognised legally as distinct ethnic groups and that there were also other communities who might call themselves travellers, who were not so recognised.

Channel 4 said it was therefore entirely legitimate for the term Gypsies to be used as an umbrella term to apply to many distinct ethnicities and non-ethnic groups who fitted the planning law description. They said, for issues concerning ethnicity, the distinction between ethnic groups was important where one must show that they were members of a distinct ethnic group, such as Irish Travellers. They said, within the community, The Gypsy Council, which was concerned with Gypsies' and Travellers' human rights used "Gypsy" as an umbrella term. Within the series itself some contributors also used the terms "Gypsy" and "Traveller" interchangeably to describe themselves. Channel 4 believed the use of the term Gypsier within the context of the campaign and across the series as a whole was entirely justified and could not reasonably be described as racist, denigratory or negatively stereotypical of the communities featured. They said the term was clearly being used as an umbrella term in a celebratory context and not a negative one.

Channel 4 said the ads were approved at the highest levels of their organisation and they had also sought guidance on the ads from CAP's Copy Advice team on ads (a), (c) and (d) and been advised that the ads seemed to comply with the CAP Code and, in light of existing ASA adjudications, the ASA were unlikely to uphold complaints against them. They said they understood that advice was not binding on the ASA Council, but believed they had demonstrated that care had been taken to ensure that the campaign complied with the Code prior to publication.

1. and 2. Channel 4 said they noted that the complainants had expressed concerns that the boy pictured in ad (a) was shown as having an aggressive expression on his face. They said they did not agree that was the case or that his face, when taken with the strap-line, constituted a negative stereotype. They pointed out that there was another child in the background who was calling out to the boy pictured and that the image was therefore more suggestive of two children playing boisterously than anything negative. They said the image was not set up or directed and was taken at the boy's home caravan park. They said the image was chosen because of its strong, visual nature and because it portrayed one generation of the community as seen through the series, which had regularly featured children and given them an opportunity to express their views. They referred to their comments regarding the use of the word "Gypsier" in the context of ad (a) and argued that, even if a minority of the audience wrongly perceived the boy as being aggressive, that would not, in itself, be likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

Channel 4 said they were uncertain what aspects of ad (b) could be said to portray the Gypsy and Traveller Community in a negatively stereotypical way. The man in ad (b) was Paddy Doherty, who was a central contributor to the series and had, from the profile the series had given him, also been a contestant on, and winner of, Celebrity Big Brother 2011. He was therefore an immediately recognisable public figure who, through his success in the mainstream media, had helped to raise awareness about the Irish Traveller lifestyle and, in so doing, had challenged some of the prejudice which existed against it. Channel 4 said, although it was not made explicit in the complaint whether that was an issue, they were aware that caravans were visible in the picture, but pointed out that they were shown next to permanent housing. They pointed out that the picture had been taken at Paddy Doherty's home and that it was a fact that many Gypsies and Travellers lived and travelled in caravans and were proud of doing so. They said horses also played an important role in the community and the picture was a fair and accurate reflection of some aspects of the series. Channel 4 also referred to their comments regarding the use of the word "Gypsier" in the context of this ad and refuted any suggestion that the image was racist or denigratory, or presented a negative stereotype of the communities.

Channel 4 said the picture in ad (c) had been taken at a New Year's Eve party hosted by Paddy Doherty and which featured in the fifth episode of the series. They said the series revealed the great effort taken by female members of the communities of all ages to dress up for social occasions and to outdo one another, and the picture in the ad was one such example. They said the young women had chosen to dress in the manner depicted which was entirely in keeping with similar dresses worn by their peers at that event and others. Channel 4 said they believed that the image was a fair and accurate representation of one aspect of the Irish Traveller culture which was shown in both series one and two. They referred to their comments regarding the use of the word "Gypsier" in the context of this ad and said, even if a minority of the audience believed the dresses negatively portrayed members of the community, this would not in itself be likely to cause serious or widespread offence, given that the strap-line was a clear reference to the series, especially as it was preceded by "Bigger. Fatter".

In relation to ad (d) Channel 4 said the girls were dressed in white for their First Holy Communion, which had featured in episode one of the series. They said the photograph was a fair and accurate depiction of one aspect of the culture depicted in the series, within which such dresses were iconic. They said the priest who conducted the ceremony did not find their presentation offensive and accepted it as the girls' way of differentiating themselves. Based on the observations and evidence gathered from those who were filmed for the series, they did not believe that the outfits misrepresented the community in any way and were a fair and accurate representation of one aspect of the culture. They believed that the girls looked proud of how they were dressed. Channel 4 referred to their earlier comments about the use of the word "Gypsier" in the context of this ad and said, even if a minority of the audience believed that the dresses were inappropriate as negatively portraying members of the community, this would not in itself be likely to cause serious or widespread offence, given the strap-line was a clear back-reference to the series from which the majority of the audience would recognise such dresses as being iconic. On the issue of social responsibility Channel 4 said it did not accept that the ads were irresponsible because they depicted negative stereotypes of the community or that they endorsed prejudice against them. They reiterated that the images were taken in reportage style and reflected the observational documentary nature of the series. The subjects of all the photographs were all from the community and were not dressed in or directed to act in any way or manner other than their own.

3. Channel 4 referred to the response given to points 1 and 2, above. They said they were not aware of any cases where children had been caused physical, mental or moral harm, nor did they believe that the ads were likely to cause harm. They said the children in the ads were not portrayed in a negatively stereotypical way. The photos were of real people and were a fair and accurate reflection of the community, elements of which were contained in the series.

4. Channel 4 referred to their response on previous points. They said that the second girl in the ad was 15 years old at that time the photograph was taken, but had turned 16 before the image was used in the ad, and believe that she did not appear younger than 16 in the ad. They said the image was not sexually explicit and not more revealing than any number of other ads for, for example, swimwear products.

5. Channel 4 said informed consent had been obtained from all subjects or their relevant parent or guardian. They provided the full names of the children featured and their ages along with the relevant consent forms. They said they were aware of the disproportionately high levels of illiteracy among Gypsy and Traveller communities and had therefore, in terms of the series, put protocols in place to ensure that where a contributor may not be able to read a release form it was explained to them verbally, usually on camera, to ensure they were giving informed consent.

Channel 4 said additional consent forms had been obtained by the photographer who took the pictures in the ads and, although they were not currently in a position to speak with her, they had no reason to doubt the integrity of the information she had supplied to them at the time she was in their employ. They said one of those forms had been signed retrospectively after the ads had been published. They said final copies of the ads were sent to the families of all subjects and no objections were received. In order to prove that, they provided a courier receipt which they said showed that a copy of the ad had been sent to families of two of the girls featured in ad (c) and also provided a statement from a member of staff which stated that she had specifically sought verification that the families had seen the ad prior to publication. Channel 4 said they had neither portrayed nor referred to anyone in an adverse or offensive way.

Assessment

The ASA took advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) who had undertaken specific work into the issues affecting Gypsy and Traveller communities.

The EHRC said research had shown that Gypsies and Travellers (which was the appropriate term when referring to those groups) were often subject to suspicion and disapproval because of negative public perceptions which in turn led to members of the community experiencing prejudice and harassment. They said, although racism from members of the public towards most ethnic minority groups was now widely viewed as unacceptable, it remained persistent and common towards Gypsies and Travellers and was generally seen as justified and the last "respectable" form of racism. The EHRC said they continued to receive complaints about 'No Travellers' signs.

The EHRC said, in relation to equality of opportunity, Gypsy and Traveller ethnic groups in Great Britain suffered substantial disadvantage in life chances including in health, education, employment, housing and participation in the community. They said media reporting and portrayal could have a significant impact in shaping public perceptions of Gypsies and Travellers. They said their research had found that the role of the media was a key area in the perpetuation of misunderstanding and that stereotypical images and sensational reporting frequently promoted fear and hatred in local populations. They said such problems were magnified by the absence of countervailing positive images. They said they too had received complaints about the ads from the Gypsy and Traveller community.

1. & 2. Upheld in relation to ads (a) and (c)

We understood that the first series had experienced high viewing figures and was widely covered in the press and we considered that references to it were likely to be recognisable beyond just its television audience. We considered that many who were familiar with the programme might well interpret the strap-line to mean that the second series being advertised offered even more examples of Gypsy and Traveller life, however we considered that many readers would not share that interpretation and that many were likely to infer from the word “Gypsier” that the depictions in the individual ads were highly typical of the Gypsy and Traveller community.

In relation to ad (a) we noted that the boy in the image was shown in close-up and had his lips pursed in a manner that we considered was likely to be seen as aggressive. We considered that negative image, when combined with the strap-line which suggested that such behaviour was "GYPSIER", would be interpreted by many members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities and some of the wider public to mean that aggressive behaviour was typical of the younger members of the Gypsy and Traveller community. We considered that implication was likely to cause serious offence to some members of those communities while endorsing the prejudicial view that young Gypsies and Travellers were aggressive. We therefore concluded that ad (a) was offensive and irresponsible.

In relation to ad (b) we understood that the man featured was a key contributor both to the series and other entertainment programmes and would therefore be recognisable to a number of readers. We noted that he was leading a horse across a field and that caravans were visible in the background and we understood these were representative of the community in which he lived. We considered that image, when combined with the strap-line, was suggestive that horses and caravans were highly representative of the Gypsy and Traveller community. Although we understood that many Gypsies and Travellers, for example Settled Travellers, might not like the suggestion that caravans and horses were typical of their lives, we did not consider that it was likely to cause them either serious or widespread offence, or endorse prejudice.

We understood that the photo in ad (c) was an accurate depiction of how the young women had chosen to dress for the occasion at which they had been photographed and we considered that it was clear that they were dressed for a night out. However, we noted that they were heavily made-up and wearing low cut tops and we considered that, when combined with the strap-line and in particular the word "GYPSIER", the ad implied that appearance was highly representative of the Gypsy and Traveller community in a way that irresponsibly endorsed that prejudicial view and was likely to cause serious offence to the Gypsy and Traveller community.

In relation to ad (d) we noted that the girls were dressed and made-up for their First Holy Communion and we considered that their heavy make-up and elaborate dresses might appear unusual to those who did not understand the reason for them being dressed in that way. However, although we considered that some Gypsies and Travellers might find distasteful the suggestion that their presentation was “GYPSIER”, we did not consider that the ad was likely to cause them serious or widespread offence, or endorse prejudice.

On this point ads (a) and (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 (Social responsibility) and 4.1 (Harm and offence). We also investigated ads (b) and (d) under these Code rules, but did not find them in breach.

3. Upheld in relation to ad (a) only

We considered, for the reasons given in points 1 and 2 above, that the boy in ad (a) was depicted in a way that was offensive and endorsed negative stereotypes about him and his community. We considered that the ad reaffirmed commonly held prejudices about Gypsy and Traveller children in a way that was likely to cause distress and mental harm to children from those communities, including to the boy featured in the ad, by suggesting that was an acceptable way to portray him.

In relation to ad (c), we understood that the blonde girl on the right was 15 years old in the ad, however, notwithstanding our concerns in point 4 below, we considered that both young women appeared to be over the age of 16. We therefore considered that the ad was unlikely to be seen by the audience as depicting children specifically in a negatively stereotypical way and therefore was unlikely to result in harm to children generally. Nor did we consider that, on this point, it was likely to result in harm to the girl featured in the ad.

In relation to ad (d) we understood that the girls were made-up for their First Holy Communion. We considered, for the reasons given in points 1 and 2 above, that some might find their presentation unusual or distasteful, we did not consider that they were presented in a negative or prejudicial away and therefore concluded that ad was not likely to result in harm to the girls featured, or to Gypsy and Traveller children in general.

On this point ad (a) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 (Social responsibility) and 5.1 (Children). We also investigated ads (c) and (d) under these Code rules, but did not find them in breach.

4. Upheld

We considered that both young women in the ad appeared to be over 16 years old and we understood that the young brunette woman on the left of the picture was 18 years old. Although we noted that the blonde girl on the right had had her sixteenth birthday before the picture was used in the ad, because we understood that she was 15 when the picture was taken we considered that the ad depicted a child. We noted that Channel 4 had obtained parental consent for her to appear in the photograph.

We noted that the ad accurately depicted the girl as she had dressed for the party at which the photograph had been taken. However, we noted that she was heavily made up, her bra was visible and that she was wearing a low cut top that revealed much of her cleavage and raised her breasts. Although we understood that the girl was depicted in her own choice of dress we considered that, in choosing that image for use in a poster, Channel 4 had acted irresponsibly by depicting a child in a sexualised way. For that reason we also considered that, irrespective of any consent Channel 4 may have held, the ad was also likely to be harmful to the girl featured.

On this point ad (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 (Social responsibility) and 5.1 (Children).

5. Not upheld

The CAP Code required that marketers must not unfairly portray or refer to anyone in an adverse or offensive way unless that person has given the marketer written permission to allow it. We considered that, in ads where children were so depicted, such permission would need to have been obtained from their parent or legal guardian.

However, we considered, for the reasons given in points 1, 2 and 3 above, that the children in ad (d) had not been unfairly depicted in an adverse or offensive way. As a result, we considered that Channel 4 did not have an obligation under the Code to obtain permission to depict them in that manner and we concluded that the ad was not in breach of the Code on this point.

On this point we investigated ad (d) under CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 6.1 (Privacy) but did not find it in breach.

Action

No further action in relation to ads (b) and (d). Ads (a) and (c) must not appear again.

How to comply with the rules

For advice and training on the Advertising Codes please visit the CAP website.

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