Extraordinary Influence

Ordinary people can exert extraordinary influence. I joined a Facebook campaign on Saturday, to oppose billboard advertising promoting marital infidelity. On Monday I blogged about it and updated this on Tuesday, outlining the campaign steps I had taken. I am just one of many campaigners.

The campaign leaders emailed their followers this afternoon to confirm their campaign was successful. They had seen their Facebook group swell to over 3,500 members in just four days. But more importantly, many of us took action and it yielded results.

Facebook campaign

A successful campaign

Did we know we would be successful? No. Was it risky to campaign in this way? Yes. We faced criticism from several different angles.

Some critics felt free speech was paramount. Yes it’s important, but it does not trump all else. In any case, if advertisers are entitled to free speech, so are campaigners.

I am not generally against free speech. I supported the BBC’s decision to host the BNP’s Nick Griffin on Question Time. In the end I felt an opportunity was missed to allow him to develop his ideas and face serious challenge, but I stand by my support for the decision. However, this campaign was different. The adverts appeared to breach the ASA code (although it didn’t initially accept this). Many of the BNP’s policies and utterances are offensive, but their political mandate was empirically recognised in a recent election.

Some critics argued it was a waste of time campaigning against something which was legal. If it wasn’t legal we’d just call the police! Marital infidelity is not a breach of criminal law, but it is a breach of civil law. It is a breach of contract between those who choose to forsake all others for as long as they both shall live. Or at least for as long as they remain married! The advert was not illegal, but we certainly believed it fell foul of advertising standards.

Some critics made the point that the website was not forcing individuals to break their marriage vows. They suggested visitors to the website were prepared to be unfaithful already and that advertising could not be blamed for the breakdown of their marriages. Yes, there is a truth within this, but it’s too simplistic to rest the argument there. Advertising works. It has a material effect on people’s decisions, which is why successful companies devote substantial resources to it. It’s also true that the website makes it easier for individuals to stray.

Marriage takes work. It ought to. Society doesn’t need organisations seeking to profit out of threatening the institution still further. Other organisations such as Relationship Central set a much better example.

If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.
(Manic Street Preachers, 1998)

Finally (among the main arguments I saw) some critics felt we were giving the oxygen of publicity to the website in question. See the Streisand effect for more on this phenomenon. It is true the campaign probably had this effect, but I believe it was better to take action than to walk on by. The website has received publicity, but challenging the advertising was important. The risk was that we may have failed while granting free publicity to our opponent’s cause. But we succeeded and the risk paid off. Such campaigns will not always succeed, but they are still worth fighting. We drew a fresh line in the sand for the ASA to consider before approving future advertising.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
(War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1869; or Edmund Burke)

In our campaign many good men and women did something. And they did a good thing. One of the organisers, Jon Yates, explained early on that we needed to be more than a Facebook group to get results. Daily actions were suggested.

I took a number of simple steps to help. I was amazed at the reach of one of my efforts. When I discovered one of the billboards was in my own constituency, I wrote to my MP, Jim Fitzpatrick. I also copied in my local councillors and one of them, Ahmed Hussain (Conservative), was tenacious in his response.

Cllr Ahmed immediately contacted his party colleagues and key officers in Tower Hamlets. He also raised the matter with City Hall and within a few hours the Deputy Mayor, Richard Barnes, was involved. Tim Archer, the local Conservative PPC, dipped his oar in, with a letter to the Chief Executive of the ASA asking why the complaints weren’t being investigated. The MP and his Labour colleagues on the council also took an interest. All this from one email.

Never underestimate what’s possible, especially in an election year! I am not the reason this campaign was successful, but I know I played my part. I was one of many.

Now there is a new campaign. This one is – in effect – to encourage White Label Dating (a B2B internet company) to break its link with the website in question. It will be tough but…

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
(Margaret Mead)

Uncomplicated adult fun…

I’ve just joined a Facebook campaign. It’s to oppose a billboard advertising campaign by an organisation called “MaritalAffair”. That’s a British company, so I’m sure you can work out the web address if you want to visit. I’ve deliberately not included the link so you won’t click through with your husband or wife watching.

The website describes itself as “delivering a dating arena for extra-marital affairs” for “uncomplicated adult fun.” Actually the site is worth a visit. Some of the literature on the website is thought-provoking. Did the Sun really provide such positive media coverage? Actually, no it didn’t…

wedding ring

The Facebook campaign is “Stop marital affair .co.uk advertising publicly in the UK.” When I joined, on Saturday, there were about fifty of us. Two days later, there are now about 1,300 members. Do join if you agree with the premise.

The campaign is led by Jon Kuhrt, a father of three, who – like many others – is offended by the marketing of infidelity as “uncomplicated fun”. He complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, only to be told it would only consider complaints about advertising which offend “against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards.” I believe the reasoning – to reject the complaint – is absurd on all three counts.

I don’t know what you think, but this advertising offends against my personal moral standards and it’s clear that support for marriage is widespread. I know that not all agree, but marital faithfulness is certainly a “widely accepted moral standard.”

MarriageĀ is a social norm. It may have suffered a recent decline, but it remains something that many people aspire to. If those who choose to be unfaithful feel confident it’s ok, then perhaps they might consider telling their spouses (just to check…) Little surprise that few do. Husbands and wives are often devastated when they find their spouse has cheated on them. Many people consider the infidelity of their spouses a significant enough blot on their character to end the marriage. It often ruins the lives of both partners (and possibly children too). My brother has felt the pain of this and I pray his son is spared from greater pain.

Marriage is evidently a cultural norm. Lots of us do it, and even more of us have been to weddings to endorse our friends and family who take that step. It may not be a cultural norm everywhere, but in this country it is. The advert is here in the UK and it is the British Advertising Standards Authority considering the complaints.

So I will be contacting the ASA. I am puzzled it feels Mr Kuhrt’s compaint is outside its remit and I believe this must be tested further. There are many other ways to pursue the campaign, and the Facebook campaign is a great place to contribute. This blog is where I begin.

UPDATE:

So far I have complained to the ASA and written to my local MP (Jim Fitzpatrick). There is a billboard in my constituency (Poplar & Canning Town).

I have also complained to the helpline for Global Personals. This organisation provides back office support to MaritalAffair and I wanted to encourage them to withdraw from this commercial relationship. I think it’s a reasonable suggestion; the Global Personals CEO, Ross Williams, says his core business is “love”. MaritalAffairs is the antithesis of this!

This campaign is clearly one they would prefer not to engage with (at this stage), but many people have complained and all the better if even more people do. Reach Global Personals at 01753 271286. And be polite!

In my complaint to Mr Fitzpatrick, I also copied in my local Tower Hamlets councillors. One of them (Ahmed Hussain) has pledged action already.

The ASA regulates the advertising, but not the product. It says the advertising does not – in itself – offend against “widely held moral, social or cultural standards.” I disagree and the campaign continues. There are now 2,500 members (as of 1pm on 26th January). Please engage if you feel motivated to do so.