The idea behind the ad is that the company's chicken is so addictive you have to wear Nando’s patches or chew Nando’s gum to reduce the cravings. It’s a clever concept, but the advertisers decided on a controversial way of presenting the idea.
They made an ad in which a pole-dancing woman, naked except for a g-string, thrusts her rear end toward a male customer, but doesn’t get the tip because she is wearing a Nando's patch. So she changes to Nando's gum, and next time the happy client slips money into her g-string. Later she is shown in a happy family scene in which she and her family enjoy a chicken dinner together.
The ad attracted a number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau. Some of these complaints were:
This ad was played in a popular public cinema at what is clearly a child friendly session time … showing sexually based advertising content to a young audience is totally inappropriate.
Shows and glorifies strip joints and venues that are R18 in a cinema full of children.
It was sexual and provocative and inappropriate for children to view.
Young children are shown it is acceptable for men to pay for gratuitous behaviour/performances. It promotes working in a strip club as an “ordinary” acceptable vocation for loving, family oriented mothers. It devalues the worth of women into sex objects.
How did Nando’s respond to these complaints? First, they argued that the nudity in the ad wasn’t “gratuitous” because it was “central to the idea” of the ad and ensured “authenticity”.
Second, they claimed that the ad, rather than being degrading to women, was the opposite because it showed a woman,
who was clearly in charge of her own destiny. The woman we depict in the commercial is shown to be intelligent, in control and making her own choices. She is not being coerced by the man in any way. She is acting in accordance with her own free will … Many women see the open display of female sexuality as a forthright display of empowerment.
This defence of the ad gets right to the heart of things. The company is invoking what is currently the ruling concept of morality, one based on liberal autonomy theory.
According to this theory, what matters is that we are self-determining, autonomous agents (as this is what is thought to make us human). So it is not what I choose which counts in terms of morality; it is that I am autonomous in choosing it.
That's why Nando's goes to such lengths to describe their pole-dancing mum as a self-determining agent: she is "in charge of her destiny," "in control," "making her own choices," "not ... coerced," and "acting in accordance with her own free will".
But should Nando's be portraying a woman who is engaging in a form of prostitution as a motherly role model? The company gives this answer:
We don't believe that it is our place, nor our audience's, to make a judgement about a woman's fitness as a mother based solely on her professional choices. The woman is not engaged in any activity that shows her being a bad mother. Indeed, she is clearly portrayed in the final scene as an ideal mother who cares for her family.
I hardly know where to begin my criticism of this statement. First, note the taboo placed on "judging" by Nando's. Again, this makes sense if the real aim of morality is to maximise autonomy. If we judge a choice negatively and make it morally illegitimate then we are placing a limit on someone's will, on their ability to determine for themselves how to act.
Hence the seeming arrogance of Nando's in solemnly telling us that we, the audience, must not make judgements about the choice of a mother to support herself by pole-dancing.
Note too the unrealistic, nihilistic conclusions that this leads to: that the woman is "not engaged in any activity that shows her being a bad mother" and that she is, in fact, an "ideal mother" who cares for her family.
In the Nando's world it would be impossible to uphold any moral standards. Individuals could behave however they liked, and as long as they could show they weren't coerced, their choices would be considered moral. Furthermore, it would be thought wrong to judge individuals for the moral choices that they did make.
Which leaves the Advertising Standards Bureau in a tricky position, as there isn't much for them to do without the possiblity of standards.
As it is, the ASB finding was laughably incoherent. The ASB dismissed the complaints against the ad, in part on this reasoning:
The Board noted the complaints that the advertisement vilified women by depicting the woman pole dancing and therefore as a stripper or prostitute. The Board considered that the depiction of the woman pole dancing was not a depiction of a sleazy or overtly sexual woman and that there was no suggestion that the woman was a prostitute.
A naked, pole-dancing woman shoving her genitalia toward a male client isn't "overtly sexual"? A woman accepts money for such a service and there is "no suggestion that the woman was a prostitute"? There is a radical redefinition of reality going on here. And what of Nando's claim that their pole dancing woman was engaging in "an open display of female sexuality" as an act of empowerment? How do you square this with the ASB denial that there was anything overtly sexual happening?
Then there is this ASB classic:
The Board noted complaints about the inappropriateness of stripping or pole dancing being shown in conjunction with images of a happy family and the disconnect between poledancing or stripping and family values. The Board considered that poledancing was not incompatible with family values.
Are we supposed to laugh out loud at this point? But then we get the explanation for the seemingly out of touch comments:
The Board noted many complaints about the depiction of a mother and wife as a pole dancer/prostitute and considered that this vilified women. The Board considered that this advertisement depicted a strong in control woman who went about her work in a professional manner (wearing a suit to work), enjoyed her work, enjoyed being 'sexy' and enjoyed time with her family. The Board considered that this advertisement depicted the woman as being a strong and empowered woman. The Board considered that the advertisement did not vilify women by portraying a woman in both roles or in a manner that demonstrated that she was 'sexy'. The Board considered that such a depiction was not improper as a depiction of someone who was also a mother and wife.
So the Board too follows autonomy theory morality. What matters is that the woman is an uncoerced, self-defining agent. She is a "strong in control woman" who "enjoyed her work" and who is "empowered" (rather than lacking power and therefore being coerced in her choices by someone else).
Again, the consequence of adopting this approach is that the concern is simply to be non-judgemental and permissive (as this places the fewest limits on individual choice). There isn't a focus on the inherent goodness of an act, nor a realistic assessment of the effects moral choices are likely to have.
At times, it seems as if the Board is content to press the right theoretical buttons, and to be unconcerned with the contradictory arguments this generates. In the last quote, for instance, we are told that the ad is OK because the woman enjoys being sexy (and is therefore uncoerced) and just a few lines later we're assured that the ad is fine because the woman is not being depicted as "sexy".
So at least Nando's have done us one favour. They have brought into the open the uselessness of the ASB as a body charged with upholding standards.
Note: to read the ASB finding you have to click here and go to the findings for June 2007