Friday, 4 March 2011

Oh, for God's sake: BHA census campaign ads deemed too "offensive" for railway stations

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One of the rejected Census Campaign ads
The definition of "offensive" appears to have widened significantly with news that the British Humanist Association has had a series of adverts rejected by companies owning advertising space in railway stations on the grounds that they could "cause widespread and serious offence". The proposed ads were intended to promote the BHA's Census Campaign, which is encouraging non-religious people to tick the "None" option when asked "What is your religion?" in this month's census. Since it launched, the campaign's slogan has been "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so" and the posters, which you can view in full on the BHA website, were to continue with the theme. The adverts, say the BHA, were rejected by the companies for two reasons: "they were concerned that the use of the phrase ‘for God’s sake’ would cause widespread and serious offence and they also did not wish to take adverts relating to religion."

As one of our readers pointed out to me on Twitter, the idea that such companies don't "do God" seems a little unlikely – remember the saga of the Alpha Course ad that was defaced in London Bridge? And on the subject of offence, have we really reached a point where "for God's sake" is seen as capable of hurting the delicate sensibilities of Britain's commuters? Where does this leave, for example, the "OMG where did you get that..." clothes campaign that I'm sure many of you have seen on your travels (there's an example of that here)? Or Vodafone's "Everyone loves an OMG moment" campaign (mentioned here)?

The BHA, for their part, are unimpressed, as their chief executive, Andrew Copson, explains:
"It is a little tongue-in-cheek, but in the same way that saying 'bless you' has no religious implication for many, 'for God’s sake' is used to express urgency and not to invoke a deity. This censorship of a legitimate advert is frustrating and ridiculous: the blasphemy laws in England have been abolished but we are seeing the same principle being enforced nonetheless."
How the revised slogan will look on London buses
The BHA is to go ahead with an advertising campaign on buses, which will run in London, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham, Cardiff and Exeter from today, but, on the advice of the Committee of Advertising Practice, the slogan has been changed to "Not religious? In this year's census say so".

Of course, as Andrew Copson points out, the campaign is not about dissuading "those who hold strong religious beliefs from holding them", but rather ensuring that the census presents a more accurate picture of religiosity in Britain. As Winston Fletcher highlights in his piece in the new issue of New Humanist, the last census, with its leading "What is your religion?" question, saw 71.8% of respondents say they were Christian, a figure that is contradicted by numerous other surveys on the country's religious make-up. Yet the 71.8% figure is consistently invoked by policy makers to back up the increasing role for religious organisations in the provision of public services.

What do you make of the rejection of the BHA's ads? Does it represent the return of blasphemy restrictions by the back door? Or is "for God's sake" really too much to encounter on a great British rail journey? Do share your thoughts in the comments.
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