- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

LONDON | In what is sure to set some traditional stiff upper lips aquiver, British television viewers are being asked whether the latest pitch for condoms is a fit subject to ponder over afternoon tea, or whether dinner is really the time for the television to be giving children advice on abortion.

A major campaign is afoot across the country to ditch decades of media restrictions and allow pregnancy and abortion advice, as well as round-the-clock commercials for condoms, to be broadcast on nationwide television and radio.

The new rules, marking a drastic shift from the broadcast media’s historically conservative approach to sex-related advertising, could take effect as early as next year. But the howls of outrage over “sexualizing” youngsters and promoting abortion are already in full flow.

What’s happening is a government-ordained review of advertising codes to target Britain’s rate of teenage pregnancy, the highest in Europe, and rampant infections of sexually transmitted diseases. According to a government report to Parliament last year on the results of a nationwide survey of sexual health clinics, more than 11,000 Britons younger than 16 were diagnosed with gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, herpes or genital warts from 2002 to 2006.

The rule changes that would permit condom ads 24/7 and allow pregnancy and abortion advice on television and radio for the first time have been encouraged by the powerful Advertising Standards Authority, faced with what it describes as “a public health problem that is clearly urgent.”

The three months of public consultation over such a dramatic shift advocated by two watchdog organizations — the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice — are to be wrapped up by June 19.

Few doubt that a major problem exists. But there are more than a few doubts that the answer is watching TV ads for the latest in flavored condoms, or viewing abortion advice while sitting alongside the children during an early evening episode of “Midsomer Murders.”

“This is awful,” Michaela Aston, of the pregnancy crisis service Life, told the Times of London. John Smeaton of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said in a statement that condom advertising would “only serve to sexualize young people.”

The resulting promiscuity, he added, “would lead to more abortions, more teenage pregnancies and more sexually transmitted infections.”

Psychotherapy counselor Elizabeth Hopkins rejected the idea of removing the ad restrictions.

“I do not want this type of advertising in my face, among the ads for a new sofa, toothpaste, supermarket bargains and the like,” she told The Washington Times.

Broadcasting such ads on prime-time television won’t achieve anything “except offending people,” she said. “Anyway, young people do not watch prime-time TV on a regular basis. They are either on the Internet, Facebook, blog or Twitter, playing computer games, watching DVDs or listening to music.”

A local government worker, Maureen Greenhill, said she and her husband, Tim, a retired real estate agent, agreed. “We do not consider that such advertising should be shown prior to the established 9 p.m. watershed,” she said.

“Never mind the effects, negative or otherwise, such advertising may have on young people,” Mrs. Greenhill said. “We see absolutely no need to violate prime-time family TV with condom and abortion advice ads.”

Julie Douglas, of the independent pregnancy advisory service Marie Stopes International, told the Independent newspaper in London that her organization would immediately consider running such ads, should the opportunity be made available.

But she does wonder “if we could afford to do it in prime-time TV,” although “it would be a very interesting thing to do.”

Ms. Aston, of Life, said, “Pro-life charities have no money, and pro-abortion charities have a lot. We will never be able to afford to advertise on television.”

Mr. Smeaton, of the Society for Protection of Unborn Children, agreed.

“Agencies with a financial interest will be in a position to buy expensive broadcast advertising, whereas groups which provide objective information about abortion … will be unlikely to afford to advertise,” he said.

Whatever the cost, some women said such ad campaigns would have positive aspects. Special events coordinator Jane Bembridge said that while most women realize the benefits of contraception and that abortion facilities exist, “I do agree that the advertising of these two things” could help.

She suggested that the advertising could “increase awareness and may allow more women to make educated and informed decisions about their situations, which can only be a good thing.”

As far as condom ads are concerned, Ms. Bembridge said, “Why not? If we can advertise Tampax, sanitary towels and incontinence pads, then why not condoms?”

Pat Murdoch, who leads a branch of Cats Protection, was more dismissive. “Promoting contraception is great within a larger context,” she said, “but just to bang on about contraception without any reference to self-control, I believe, is the road to disaster.”

“Just promoting condoms and such,” Mrs. Murdoch added, “is not addressing the fundamental problem of generations growing up lacking self-respect, self-control and respect for others.”

As far as Parliament member Nadine Dorries is concerned, the whole idea of abortion advertising is “just plain sick.” She told journalists, “I am quite sure that any adverts will depict smiling, pretty nurses, gleaming reception areas and leafy car parks.

“They will not, in any way, show the fear, anguish, isolation or subsequent depression.”

Ms. Hopkins, the psychotherapy counselor, suggested this scenario: “Imagine if a young person visiting elderly relatives who are watching TV, and on comes an ad for condoms followed by the consequence of not using them, such as a visit to an abortion clinic. …

“It’s difficult to say who would be squirming and blushing the most.”

• Al Webb can be reached at awebb@washingtontimes.com.

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