What would Jesus ban?

What is more offensive, a cartoon Jesus or the Advertising Standards Authority's decision to ban it?

In 2006, during the run-up to Christmas, the Grocer magazine ran an advert for the Big Prawn Company. The ad featured a Nativity scene, but with the traditional baby Jesus replaced by an edible crustacean. The slogan read, "A King is born. Order now to ensure a Christmas delivery". Twenty-eight people complained. The Advertising Standards Authority rejected the complaints, accepting that the scenario "would be seen as light-hearted by most readers of The Grocer" and was thus "unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence."

In 2011, just before Easter, the Metro carried an ad for the mobile company Phones 4U. It featured a winking, thumbs-up Jesus and the slogan "Miraculous deals on Samsung Galaxy AndroidTM phones". Almost a hundred people complained. This time, the ASA has rejected the company's (admittedly absurd) contention that the image presented "a light-hearted, positive and contemporary image of Christianity relevant to the Easter weekend."

Instead, the regulator concludes that the adverts "gave the impression that they were mocking and belittling core Christian beliefs", "were disrespectful" and "were likely to cause serious offence, particularly to Christians".

Clearly something has changed. There were more complaints about the second ad, but given the much larger circulation of the Metro compared to the Grocer, not enough to indicate that widespread offence had been caused. Indeed, the ASA does not usually take the number of complaints it receives into account at all, even when judging whether an advertisement is likely to cause "serious and widespread offence".

Nor is it obvious why depicting Jesus as a prawn -- and the use of a non-kosher foodstuff seems especially inappropriate given Christ's Jewish background -- should be considered less offensive than a smiling, recognisably human cartoon-character offering "miraculous" deals on mobile phones. Both images are somewhat crass and likely to offend the humourless. But neither poses a serious threat to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

It also strikes me as somewhat over-the-top of the ASA to claim that the image of Jesus emplyed in the Phones 4U ad was "mocking and belittling core Christian beliefs". The cartoon Jesus may have been based ultimately on the Roman Catholic icongraphy of the Sacred Heart. Its immediate source, however, is to be found in the 1999 film Dogma, in which a marketing-obsessed cardinal introduces the figure of a winking, thumbs-up "Buddy Christ" as an antidote to the "wholly depressing" crucifix.

"Buddy Christ" figurines and tee-shirts remain on sale, and the film, far from being banned, is shown regularly on Channel 4. The similarity between the Phones 4U advert and the Buddy Christ figure, moreover, is no accident: the one is clearly derived from the other and the cartoon would make little sense to anyone unfamiliar with the film.

It's likely that the Big Prawn complaint would have been decided differently today. In the past few years, the ASA has been taking an increasingly strict, some would say humourless, line on suggestions of religious offensiveness. It has, for example, banned a series of ice-cream adverts featuring pregnant nuns and gay priests, and even one for curling-tongs which employed the slogan, "a new religion for hair". One of the adverts deemed likely to cause "serious or widespread offence" triggered a mere six complaints. The decision led the National Secualar Society to accuse the ASA of surreptitiously re-introducing the blasphemy law.

At the very least, the ASA seems to have an alarmingly low threshold as to what constitutes "offence" where religion is concerned. An advert, it seems, need not be objectively outrageous; it's enough that someone somewhere might potentially take exception to it. The ASA's code, it is true, states that "particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age." But it does not explain why this should be necessary, and it's hard to see why advertising should be subjected to restraints that would be considered intolerable in literature, film, art or even television.

Does it matter that the ASA is now over-protective of the supposed sensibilities of believers, the great majority of whom will at most have been mildly irritated? Perhaps not to the phone company concerned, for whom today's ruling will provide a welcome shot of free publicity. But advertising is not purely commercial. It is also public art. Its ubiquity makes it the most pervasive modern art-form, with an influence on public consciousness and the popular culture going far beyond the product being sold. The best adverts provoke thought and debate, comment on and contribute to the world we live in, and stay in people's memories long after the product being pushed has been forgotten.

Banning an advert robs people of the opportunity to have their thoughts provoked by it. Potentially it impoverishes culture. The ASA should realise that it owes greater duty to society as a whole than to the unrepresentative and eccentric handful who take the trouble to complain.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How we got here

The story of Britain's finances in six charts. 

Today George Osborne did two things. He gave his annual ‘Autumn Statement’, in which he’ll detailed how his estimates for growth, debt and the deficit have changed since the Budget in July, and he laid out the Spending Review, which detailed exactly how much government departments will spend over the parliament.

We’ll have coverage of today’s decisions shortly, but first, how did we get here? After five years of austerity, why is the government still cutting so much?

As we all know, in 2008 the party stopped. In the same way that the Paris attacks are a product of 9/11, today’s Spending Review can trace its origins to the fateful crash of the global financial system seven years ago.

So let’s return to 2008 and remember that government debt is any Chancellor’s greatest fear. If your debt gets too high you will become bankrupt: global markets will not lend you the money you need to keep running your government.

For 15 years, from 1993 to 2008, government debt was not a great worry. Gordon Brown was able to spend his decade as Chancellor doling out the fat of the land. Debt never rose high than 41 per cent of GDP, and was only 37 per cent in spring 2008, not much higher than it had been in 1993.

Then the financial crisis happened.


In seven years the government’s debt has doubled, from 41 to 80 per cent. The Tories spent five years very successfully blaming the last Labour government for causing this spike by overspending from 1997-2008, but, as this chart suggests, the greatest cause was the global crisis, not Labour profligacy.

Regardless of who was responsible, the debt is now at a historic high. If we rewind our chart back to 1975 we can see that today’s debt levels are even higher than those Thatcher railed against in the 1980s, when she, like today’s Tories, also cut spending heavily upon entering office.

But while she succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

But while Thatcher succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

So now the UK must endure another five years of cuts if we are to run the surplus Osborne is targeting and which he recommitted himself to today. If we don’t run a surplus our debt levels will continue to slowly creep up towards 100 per cent of our GDP.

According to Eurostat, who measure things slightly different to the Office of National Statistics, our debt is close to 90 per cent and is among the highest in Europe. 

We are still just below the level of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), those countries whose debts ballooned after the financial crisis and who have gone through a succession of governments as austerity has been imposed by international markets.

But most of those countries have now started to cut spending severely, as for instance in Greece, whereas the UK is still running a relatively high budget deficit (nearly 6 per cent of GDP according to Eurostat). If we continue to do so we will keep adding to our debt, and could approach the level at which markets will no longer lend to us.

That, at least, is the Tories’ line of argument. So we are set for another five years of cuts. And everything is also dependent on growth. The figures I’ve quoted for debt and the deficit are all expressed as a percentage of GDP. A country’s total levels of debt don’t matter; what matters is how great they are compared to the size of your economy.

The cuts Osborne announced today will only succeed in cutting the deficit if growth is as high as he hopes it will be (as Paul Johnson of the IFS pointed out on the Today programme this morning).

How likely is that? Well, the estimates he gave in 2010 seemed over-optimistic in 2012, when the economy was flat-lining and Osborne was at his political nadir, but eventually seemed just in 2014, when the economy recovered.

Osborne’s political future will thrive or dive depending on growth over the next five years. Many economists have argued, including Robert Skidelsky and Simon Wren-Lewis in these pages, that Osborne’s focus on austerity in 2010 caused growth to stall in 2012. If he continues to cut, growth could stall yet again in 2017 or 2018.

The cuts over the next five years are going to be more severe than those from 2010-2015, and are greater than those any other major economy is planning. If they cripple growth, Osborne’s plan will need readjusting once again if both he and the UK are to survive. 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.