Puff Piece

A dishonest melange of irrelevant and empty arguments

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Truth in advertising – or where I stand on a contentious issue.

I won't lie; in the not-so-distant past I've used the incendiary phrase, "the last socially acceptable prejudice" to describe fat discrimination as I perceived it at the time. Suffice to say I've done a fair bit of reading since then and my stance has shifted a tad - though, I suspect, not enough for those who most strenuously object to it.

So, what brought on this sudden urge to blog and probably make myself unpopular? Well, a post by definatalie from the fatshionista livejournal community concerning two spoof ads supposedly promoting Fat Acceptance for a kick-off. Commissioned for a segment on The Gruen Report, an Australian TV show examining advertising and its effect on the public, the brief was to come up with "a campaign for the idea of Fat Pride; to end shape discrimination and make overweight Australians feel less humiliated by the constant public disapproval of anyone who isn’t a size 10 or under". This hard-hitting ad produced by hot shot Oz agency, The Foundry, was deemed too offensive to air. (By all means take a gander but be warned it's not for the faint-hearted). In stark contrast, rival agency JWT came up with this ad in response to the brief. Branded a softer option it duly won the pitch and was aired.

While the Foundry commercial made me blanch, ultimately, it got the job done. (Frankly those gruesomely graphic ads about drunk driving with folk bouncing off and flying through windscreens upset me just as much, especially since I don’t drive, and I expect they achieve their objective too). The JWT ad, however, I found infinitely more offensive. It's bad, lazy advertising; condescending, dripping with insincerity and, crucially, doesn't answer the brief. Instead the entire concept hangs on exactly the kind of crass stereotyping that fuels fat discrimination in the first place – the most obvious being that we're all insatiable gutbuckets; metaphors for mass consumerism. But, lest you forget, Greed is Good! (Well, jumpsuits and bat-wing sleeves are back so why not Gordon Gekko). What's more, according to JWT, it's down to us that farmers grow more crops and airlines burn more fuel to get us off the ground. Sound familiar? It should do since these are the very same points fat bashers routinely use to shame us, right down to the blaming language. Throw in the gratuitous shot of stumbling headless fatties on the beach, (most likely suffering with fat related joint problems), and you've got the very reason an ad like the Foundry's is so desperately needed in the first place. The JWT ad is essentially a fat joke. Of course it won and wasn’t considered too offensive to run. After all, who is it going to upset? Only fat people with no sense of humour, who should really lighten up. Jeez, the irony, it burns.

Yes, the Foundry ad is shocking but, in my view, it needs to be. How else are you going to persuade bigots to wise up to themselves in a culture that not only refuses to recognise the bigotry you’re practicing but actively encourages it? Sizeism, as amply demonstrated by whole the JWT debacle is not taken seriously, at least not in Australia and not in the UK either – and that’s the perspective from which I rant. As a fat Jew brought up in London I can tell you that I've experienced infinitely more sizeism than anti-Semitism in my life. This doesn't mean I think it doesn't exist in other parts of the country or other parts of the world, or that it doesn't have an impact on other Jews’ lives, or that I think sizeism is worse than or equivalent to Nazi genocide, (how could I for pity's sake?) Rather that society has evolved sufficiently for it to be commonly understood that deliberately offending or publicly hating on Jews will cause one hell of an ugly fracas and there will be serious consequences if anyone in a position of power or influence tries it. As in it will make the national news and be discussed in Parliament. Likewise things are very far from perfect for POC or the LGBQ community but at least there is some kind of progress, (civil partnerships recognised by law), and discourse, (institutional racism in the army and the Metropolitan Police Force), springing up around these forms of discrimination. The same is not true of sizeism. When a UK member of Big Fat Blog attempted to get 200 signatures to mount a government petition concerning discrimination against fat people wishing to foster or adopt, he barely got 20. That is how little support for and awareness of FA there is here.

I'm not trying to infer that fat discrimination is worse than racism, anti-Semitism, ableism or homophobia nor am I trying to say it's exactly the same in nature. They're all different, they're all life blighting, they all still go on and they all stink. What I am saying is that here, in my experience, sizeism has yet to be acknowledged as a form of discrimination at all - by the media, the government, the medical profession or anybody else save a handful of those who experience it. There is no public discourse, no self-examination, no glimmer of change on the horizon, no protection enshrined in law which, given that we we make up half the UK population, is shameful. That doesn't make tackling sizeism more important than tackling any other type of discrimination, but it does mean there's an awful lot of work to be done before it's taken as seriously. Sizeism may not be the last acceptable form of prejudice but it is a younger one and it’s on the rise in the UK and manifesting itself in ways that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago.

One thing that's often noted in the fat-o-sphere is how often the most appalling anti-fat invective is spewed by those who would otherwise consider themselves liberal. These, in my opinion, are the very people most likely to benefit from seeing the Foundry Ad and the most likely to get it.