Pussy Drinks Ltd pretends not to know why people complained about its adverts

"They said the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) stated that a pussy was 'a cat, particularly a kitten' and that was the correct meaning of the word. . . They said the inspiration for the product and white can design was a gorgeous white pussycat owned by a

An ad campaign for an energy drink has just been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for featuring posters with the word "pussy" in large type, with the strapline "The drink's pure, it's your mind that's the problem".

The ASA recieved almost 160 complaints over it - some of which said the campaign was offensive to women, some of which said the campaign was unsuitable for children. However, the defence that Pussy Drinks Ltd came up with shows such commitment that it needs to be run in full here (with my emphasis):

1. & 2. Pussy Drinks Ltd considered it ironic that complaints had been made about offence caused, given that their posters clearly stated that the drink was pure and it was the mind of the viewer that was the problem. They said the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) stated that a pussy was "a cat, particularly a kitten" and that was the correct meaning of the word. They said cats possessed all the appropriate symbolism for their product and Pussy was cool, beautiful, feline and natural, with attitude, which explained their choice of name. They stated that until the OED changed the meaning of the word, they defended their right to advertise their product. They questioned why the complainants were automatically referring to the slang meaning of what they believed to be an innocent word. They said it was not their intention to offend, that the slang meaning of the word was not one that they had created, and that any problems were only caused by those who were twisting the meaning of an innocent word.

JC Decaux said they had received one complaint directly. The complainant had found the poster offensive and said there had been a great deal of discussion about the issue on social media sites.

3. They questioned which religion would be specifically offended by Pussy. They said the ancient Egyptians used to worship cats. They felt that people of a religious disposition tended to occupy an idyllic place away from the crassness that sadly existed in mainstream society and therefore felt it was surprising that the complaints had been made.

4. & 5. The advertisers questioned whether the complaints were from children and believed the complaints were from adults with an adult perspective on the slang meaning of the word. They felt that the complainants were assuming that children were aware of the slang meaning, and if that was the case, they considered it was likely that the children had heard the slang meaning from those adults, who now claimed they wished to protect those children. They stated that, to a child, a pussy was a cat or kitten and did not consider that was offensive. They said the inspiration for the product and white can design was a gorgeous white pussycat owned by a family member as a child.

6. The advertisers did not provide any further comments about the website content specifically.

This sort of tactic is fairly common, and is often used by companies like Ryanair (such as in this case) and Paddy Power (here). It illustrates how difficult it currently is for advertising watchdogs to do their jobs properly -  all they are able to do is stop the adverts, by which time it’s too late and the company has benefited from the “edgy” reputation from the ban.

The ASA ruled that the ads must not appear again in their current form, which is this:

Hmmm. Well that's enough of that.

What? Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder