Offended? Then complain!

Do you know a young person in whose talents you delight?  Whom you have watched develop those talents through commitment, diligence and application?  Are you proud to know such a young person? 

How would you feel then if someone labelled this young person as a “freak of nature”?  Simply because they are different.

That’s what Channel 4 has done with its billboard advertising campaign for the programme “Inside Incredible Athletes” which is going out on Sunday evenings.   The programme explores the preparations of several young disabled people for the Paralympics.  The programme itself is an extremely positive portrayal of the talents of these young people, of their dedication and hard work.  It goes a long way to challenge stereotypical attitudes towards and negative portrayals of young disabled people.  For once, they are not to be pitied but admired.  We should not gawp at them because they look or behave differently but because they have a talent worthy of our attention.  Like other elite athletes, they have a unique contribution to make to the richness of our society.  The programme itself is to be celebrated.

So it is a real shame that the broadcaster chose such an offensive and inappropriate message to promote the programme.  Calling young disabled people “freaks of nature” reinforces negative stereotypes, preys on our innate fear of difference and does nothing to break down barriers of understanding.   It is a gratuitously offensive promotional message that grabs our attention for all the wrong reasons.  And was designed as such.  It is lazy marketing of the worst kind.

So the burd has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority.  And if you care to join me, here is the text of my complaint in full.     I await the ASA’s response with interest. 

“The advert carries the headline “Freaks of Nature”.  It is advertising the Channel 4 programme “Inside Incredible Athletes” and is being displayed on billboard sites around Edinburgh, and presumably all around the UK.

The promotional message, “Freaks of Nature” is misleading, inappropriate and offensive.  Children and young people with disabilities – whether they are elite athletes or not – are not freaks of nature.   Young people are born disabled or become disabled for a wide range of reasons and we all have a responsibility – broadcasters included – to foster a better understanding of how and why disability happens.  A lazy and wrong proposition simply feeds our misunderstanding of the causes of disability.

It is also offensive and reinforces negative stereotypes of disabled children and young people.  It suggests that their difference is something to be afraid of, or to be mocked, or to be targeted in a negative way.  Many disabled children and young people experience bullying and negative attitudes throughout their life.  This promotional message does nothing to address such stigmatisation and instead, fuels it.  To label any young person a freak of nature is quite simply offensive.

The programme itself is a very positive portrayal of the talent and value disabled children and young people bring to society.  It shows that just like other children and young people, they have hopes, talents and positive contributions to make to the richness of our communities.  It’s a shame therefore that Channel 4 chose to advertise the programme inappropriately by portraying these young people in such a stereotypically negative way. 

Channel 4 as a broadcaster has responsibilities given its reach and potential to change attitudes.  The advert should be withdrawn or the broadcaster should be instructed to remove this misleading, inappropriate and offensive promotional message.”

4 thoughts on “Offended? Then complain!

  1. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has considered my complaint and dismissed it with this reasoning:

    Dear Ms Higgins,

    As you know, we’ve been looking into your complaint against Channel Four.

    The ASA Council has now carefully considered the ad in question in line with your complaint. Unfortunately, I should tell you that it didn’t consider that there was a case for further action under the Code on this occasion.

    Council noted that the phrase “FREAKS OF NATURE” had been used in a widespread Channel 4 campaign highlighting a series of programmes which raised awareness of the Paralympics and paralympians. Whilst we understood the concerns, we considered that most people would understand the term as a positive reference to the athletes’ sporting abilities and achievements. We did not consider the ads likely to cause serious or widespread offence, to be seen as denigrating or stigmatising people with disabilities, or to cause very serious offence or harm to young disabled people.

    Whilst I realise that this decision may be disappointing to you, we’ve passed on the comments we received to the advertiser so they’re aware of reactions to their campaign.

    I’d like to thank you again for all your correspondence.

    Whether or not any actual disabled children and young people, and their families, felt denigrated, stigmatised or offended, appears to be neither here nor there. We clearly have a long road to travel to address attitudes and understanding….

  2. I think it’s pretty complex to be honest. The phrase “freak of nature” is applied to all sorts of things, both negative and positive. Usain Bolt for instance is oft referred to as such.

    When you break the phrase down though it can be misused. Shorten it simply to “freak” and then you have an offensive term which is exclusively used as such.

    My honest opinion is that it’s just too tricky to use a phrase which needs such a huge amount of context for something as transient as a poster. Good communication is about clearly conveying a message, this phrase can’t do that under any circumstances.

  3. I can see where you are coming from Kate but I think you are wrong. The phrase “freaks of nature” is, I imagine, intended as an edgy double entendre eg the athletes are freaks of nature because they do incredible things despite their disability. I think Channel Four, as you acknowledge, have put a lot of money and talent into making this more than “sympathy programming.” It’s a very youth orientated channel and this kind of hard edged marketing is what you would expect from any of their programmes, not just stuff on people with a disability. The posters challenge prejudice rather than pander to it.

  4. So beautifully put, these children are to be admired, not labelled as any kind of ‘freaks’. They are beautiful young people who are immensely talented. I have a son who has severe learning disabilities, and if anyone dared to call him a freak of nature, well, let’s just say they would never say it again!

    Thank you

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