The ADgenda: this week's most offensive advert

Fat binder tablets.

With the waistband of Britain tightening as obesity statistics grow, it’s
only understandable that adverts quietly confront us with solutions to
shrink our shameful stomachs. It’s nicer than being told off by news
articles! But, when the news lectures us about children wider than they are
tall and our imminent deaths at the hands of the Big Mac, the underlying
message is, above all, health (and maybe Britain not being picked last in
the PE class of the world). XLS Medical’s advert for their fat binder
tablets remarkably omits all possible health benefits for whatever the
cartoon science says their product does.

Of course, health isn’t their main selling point. Why would it be? It’s not
as if the name of their brand features the word “medical”, a word pointing
directly towards health in all possible uses. Marching under this universal
“medical” flag, it must be difficult to segregate your market so harshly,
but they manage it. This advert’s target is so fixed on women it’s like an
insecurity-seeking missile. The central figure, our heroine, laments at
gaining weight until she doesn’t feel like herself anymore. The images
accompanying this claim are indeed shocking deviations from being oneself:
she happily holds a baby and eats a sandwich at her desk. But the straw
that breaks the camel’s back is when she struggles to zip up her
tightly-squeezing clothes – and the penny drops. The only reason XLS
Medical would ever expect anyone to buy this is because of insecurity about
their image – insecurity which their adverts help to create.

Are men not in need of help with dieting? Or is it expected that,
since they don’t wear red dresses like on the Special K box, they’ll just
do the Manly Thing and keep drinking their beer-bellies gargantuan, sucking
in their gut when a pretty lady walks by? Targeting diet products at women
is not just perpetuating a worn-out ad stereotype like women as homemakers
or sex objects; it’s stretching the gender gap beyond repair. When men
barely get tutted for being an above-average size, women are so fervidly
encouraged to look like models that some can end up starving themselves.
And defining beauty under “medical”? Maybe the advertising world just holds
different definitions to the real world: New Medical Special K: now more
effective in keeping you presentable!

 

XLS Medical’s advert. Photograph: youtube.com
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.