Phones 4 U, Ke$ha and becoming offensive



Channel 4 was censured by Ofcom last week for cutting to a light-hearted sponsorship advert just after viewers had watched the particularly graphic and disturbing rape scene in the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Phones 4 U sponsorship ad was thought to be especially inappropriate for that moment as it features a couple apparently having sex, during which the woman pauses and asks to the camera ‘I’m faking it, can I upgrade’? Ofcom received 17 complaints about the timing of the advert and this week concluded that ‘the juxtaposition of a light-hearted sponsorship credit featuring a woman during sex with a disturbing and distressing rape scene in a film was clearly unsuitable… In Ofcom’s view this clearly had the potential to be offensive to viewers’.

The timing was clearly unfortunate, but to say that the juxtaposition was offensive is a stronger claim. Of course, the psychological effect of being immersed in a violent scene at one moment and then confronted with the same(ish) subject matter presented trivially will not do much for the viewer’s aesthetic experience. But the regulator’s suggestion seemed not only to be that the juxtaposition detracted from the viewer’s enjoyment, but also that it was in some way wrong.

It is interesting to consider possible explanations for why two unrelated (and independently inoffensive) events become offensive when they are temporally adjacent. We should here draw a distinction between an individual’s subjective experience of offence – which could be felt inappropriately – and a normative (moral) assessment of the offensiveness of some expression or act – which would pertain regardless of how an individual actually responded. The psychological explanation at the subjective level might be that those who find the juxtaposition offensive fail to keep the events discreet in their minds: it is as if the succeeding event is a ‘comment on’ the preceding event. But, insofar as the succeeding event is not intended to be a comment on the preceding event, it is not clear that there is (or should be) a moral dimension to the offence that is experienced. When the film cut from the rape scene to the jokey advert, some viewers might have experienced it as an expression of disparagement towards those who were (understandably) taking the subject matter of the scene very seriously. If that had been the intention, then the attitude or communication that the juxtaposition expressed would indeed have been morally troubling. However, the content of the advert was not intended to express anything about the film alongside which it had been scheduled so, whilst it would have been preferable to avoid the coincidence, the juxtaposition was more careless than offensive (in the normative sense).

In the above situation, it was the collision of the two events that was thought to be offensive. Neither the film nor the advert became offensive in itself. There are other examples of juxtaposition where one of the events (or expressive incidents) seems to have become offensive itself through colliding with another event. This seemed to some to have been the explanation for why Ke$ha’s song ‘Die Young’ was pulled from radio station playlists following the Sandy Hook School massacre. The artist herself was reported as saying that she ‘understand[s] why [her] song is now inappropriate’. Until the massacre no one had found the song offensive, but it appeared to become deeply offensive overnight. It might be thought that perhaps the song had always been offensive, but that nobody had noticed until that point. But in this case, aside from it not being a very good song, the lyrics were actually expressing the same sentiment found in the trite statements which implore us to ‘treat each day as if it’s our last’ and to ‘live life to the full’ – a sentiment which is not offensive. Had the song celebrated killing children, then it would have always been offensive rather than taking a massacre to make it so.

So, in this case too it does not seem that something inoffensive becomes offensive by virtue of colliding with another event. Granted, there were valid reasons to pull the song out of sensitivity towards the families of the victims – hearing the repeated reference to dying young may have been upsetting to anyone with the tragedy on their mind – but the lyrics themselves did not become offensive. Whilst our cultural ideas about what is offensive change slowly over time, the juxtaposition of two unrelated events (or expressive incidents) cannot make one or both become offensive. Either the juxtaposition makes salient the existing offensiveness of one or both of the events or it is the juxtaposition that is offensive; but, I suggest, only when the juxtaposition is intended to communicate something.