As the Paddy Power controversy drags on, it is clear that the majority of UK institutions are impotent to prevent a determined and cynical intent by a major commercial enterprise to cock a snook at them. Worse, their inability to deal with the provocation serves mostly to expose their own contradictions, leaving the real offender laughing all the way to the bank.
Let’s start with the whys and wherefores.
For those who haven’t picked up on the full horror of this saga yet, the fuss – the absolute shock currently doing the rounds – started with Irish bookmakers, Paddy Power publicizing their presence at Ladies’ Day at the Cheltenham races on 14 March in England with an advertising campaign that implies they are going to send in a load of trans women for punters to ‘spot’.
An accompanying ad campaign warns fans to be careful they don’t mistake a ‘stallion’ (trans woman) for a ‘mare’ (‘real’ woman) – and isn’t above implying that women who fail to make the cut, aesthetically, are ‘dogs’. Cue outrage not just from the trans community, but from women’s groups too.
There are a number of big events at Cheltenham each year: the one sponsored by Paddy Power – the meet where their logo is plastered liberally all over the place – is not the March one. So, they have fallen into a habit of ambush publicity, gaining notice way above their advertising spend by ensuring that what they do provokes the authorities – but not so much that real trouble ensues.
This year, its their ‘spot the tranny’ campaign. A couple of years back, it was a Hollywood-style sign erected without any permission on Cleeve Hill, overlooking the racecourse. Locals fumed. The publicity flowed.
They calculated, pretty obviously, that whatever trifling fines they incurred, it would cost less than the value of the publicity. Meanwhile, professional bodies – the British Horseracing Authority, who have been trying to improve the reputation of racing over the last few years, and Cheltenham Racecourse itself, which might have difficulty finding an alternate sponsor for their November meet – just grit their teeth and look the other way.
Over the years, Paddy Power has caused a lot of offence, with advertising that is sexist, misogynist and mocking of disabled persons. But so what? A couple of years back, responding to the most complained of ad in 2010 (which featured blind people kicking a cat), the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) decided it was not offensive enough to do anything about. Game, set and match to Paddy.
Whether they get quite such a free ride this time round is debatable. The ad originally went to Clearcast, as all ads must, for a view on whether it was likely to breach standards set by monitoring bodies such as OfCom and the ASA.
Sure, it was edgy. But so is Frankie Boyle. This ad, they believed, fell into a British tradition of risqué humour. Besides, they had the endorsement of trans support organisation the Beaumont Society to fall back on. Where was the harm?
Strike one! The Beaumont, following major embarrassment one week previously over its role in outing a trans man who gave birth last year, is now in many trans quarters a pariah organisation. Out of date, out of touch and out of order seems to be the consensus.
Meanwhile, and so far on the side of the angels, the ASA has responded to the volume and stridency of complaints by convening an investigation within days, as opposed to the two weeks or so it usually takes them. They will be looking not just at whether this ad gives offence, but also at its social impact.
Some media organisations – most notably, broadcaster ESPN – decided not to run the ad. Others, including Channel 4 and BSkyB went for it initially, on grounds that the ad has been cleared by Clearcast.
Strike Two! Just under a year ago, Channel 4 was proudly leading the way on transgender issues, welcoming Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone to the launch of a memorandum of understanding agreed with Trans Media Watch and setting out standards for the sensitive treatment of trans issues in future. Now they are decidedly out on a limb, with mutterings of hypocrisy being voiced by some in the trans community.
Since then, events have overtaken Channel 4 and the others, including Paddy Power to some extent. The level of complaints have actually done the trick and, after a crisis meeting, the broadcasters and Clearcast have decided to stop airing it in the UK. However, it could be argued that the harm has already been done.
Strike three! Back in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire Police, too are stunned into immobility. They have been aware of this campaign since the weekend: have been discussing how to respond; but also know that they are the ones who must pick up the consequences of the social issues being hinted at by the ASA.
The bottom line is whether this advert is likely to incite violence on the streets of Cheltenham as thousands of drunken punters pour into the town on 14 March, as some women – trans and non-trans – fear it will.
Taking the line that this is mostly about offense, local MP, Martin Horwood has slammed the ad as ‘offensive to women in general’, describing it as ‘replete with prehistoric social and sexual attitudes that show racing in a bad light’. However, he felt that legal intervention would not help.
That is not the view of Irish Transgender organisation, TENI (Transgender Equality Network Ireland), who have spent the week looking at legal options, but have so far been unable to raise the thousands of Euros necessary to take the matter to the Irish High Court.
On the bright side, the furore may have opened some doors for Trans Media Watch, who have made great inroads over the past year with the print media and Press Complaints Commission – and who have now established frank and friendly relations with Clearcast on the back of this episode.
The winner in all this, though – always the winner, unless far greater sanctions can be imposed – is Mr Paddy Power (the boss of the organisation of the same name). Earlier in the week, he was more than happy to get on the phone and portray this as nothing more than a row over competing standards of humor. The implication, of course, was that those who didn’t get the joke didn’t have a sense of humor.
However, when asked about the potential of the ad to cause violence, he was strangely silent. As, of course, one would expect. He knows that the worst that will happen is a minor knuckle-rapping and of course, the pulling of the ad, which has already paid for itself many times over in terms of worldwide brand awareness.