Stonewall has been running an excellent campaign on 1000 buses with the slogan “Some people are gay. Get over it!” So – surprise, surprise – some bigots decided to run a counter campaign on 25 buses with the slogan “Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!” Only Boris Johnson, in the middle of an election campaign, has intervened to try to get TfL to pull the ads.

Boris is wrong to make this request. Here’s why.

I have quite some experience with this sort of thing as I was one of the people who started the Atheist Bus Campaign. We needed our slogan – There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. – to get the OK of the Advertising Standards Authority. With that permission granted our advert was good to run. Our campaign prompted a whole slew of counter campaigns. One from the Christian Party asserted there definitely is a God and TfL allowed it, while a further ad basically branded people fools. Our atheist ads caused offence but we were right to run them and likewise the counter campaign caused offence too (not least the Christian Party one that attracted the second highest amount of complaints in ASA history).

Yet I would have taken the UK response to all of this over the German response any day. In Germany atheists were barred from advertising on public transport by one local authority after another, and in the end resorted to hiring a bus and driving it around Germany. This is despite religious adverts being allowed on German public transport, as documented here.

So then ask yourself the question: in the dispute over the Gay Bus ads, which approach would you prefer?

While I intensely dislike the anti-gay message on the counter advertisements, I still think they should be run. The rules need to be equally respected by both sides, and the ASA has also confirmed the anti-gay ad does not contravene any UK advertising law. If the law is wrong then it needs to be changed, and the new rules applied equally to everyone. By intervening to stop these adverts Boris has shown just the sort of intolerance that prevented atheists advertising in Germany. Is that the sort of approach to public debate we want in the UK?

[UPDATE 13.4.12, 0900]
Just to make it clear: the ASA does not pre-approve ads, but in the Atheist Bus campaign case we checked with CBS Outdoor, the company that manages the ads on London transport, and they stated that as far as they could tell there was not a problem. Subsequent complaints by Christian Voice and others to the ASA confirmed this.

[Image generated from the ever-excellent Bus Slogan Generator]


  1. Sorry it’ has taken a while to approve comments – was in the wilds of North Yorkshire all weekend without internet.

    @Orestes – I agree re. ASA, but I think the answer must be to look at the system of ad rules, not push for political intervention from the mayor.

    @ed – Thanks for the comment – interesting view!

    @Drew – Fair question. The mayor can only make this call in London because TfL exists. If these anti gay ads were to be run almost anywhere else in the country the bus firms and the ads they take would only be controlled nationally (through the flawed ASA system). So – oddly – this becomes a question of devolution of powers. Is advertising / freedom of speech a national matter? Or a local one? And whatever the answer to that is then needs a consensus based agreement of the rules that would then be policed.

  2. Jon: “I do not want the Mayor to make that call”. Fair enough, but who should? He is at least democratically elected with a mandate, as far as I understand it to look after the best interests of Londoners as a whole – all of them, which is an extraordinarily daunting task. I would prefer to have someone making decisions who is at least in part accountable for his actions, rather than a group of unelected people – however well-intentioned – to whom we have no recourse.

  3. note to self … wear glasses when typing in small boxes using a laptop,

    last paragraph should read ..

    the ad was not a call to take up arms against the gay “community”, the stonewall ad’s if anything are more likely to incite homophobia purely for being smug and annoying.

  4. Jon, I agree with you comments .. kind of .. I have seen the Stonewall bus adverts but I have not seen the “de-gay” adverts except in pictures. Personally, as a gay guy of long standing and quite happy that way, I found the stonewall ads irritating, smug and aggressive. I don’t believe they promote acceptance anymore than the “de-gay” promote homophobia .. making a personal decision to make probably unsuccessful attempt to “un-gay” is exactly that ..personal and not down to “the community”. People are still allowed to make there own choices and if they wish to be “un-gay” why should they be stopped anymore that I would stop my partner from changing from blonde to brunette? In this case, the ad is specifically directed at one sector – gay people – offering a service – the ad was a call to take up arms against the gay “community”, the stonewall ad’s if anything are more little to incite homophobia purely for being smug and annoying. Boris was wrong to stop the adverts – if they met the rules they met the rules.

  5. Orestes

    I think @Jon has got it right. The difference between the Atheist campaign busses and the anti-gay ones is that religious people haven’t suffered at the hands of Atheists (at least not in Britain). Gay people, on the other hand, have had to face prejudice (and still do). What the ad campaign does is assert that there’s something fundamentally wrong with being gay. The crazy thing about Boris stepping in to stop this is the very fact that it had to be him! Why did the ASA not? Why none of the rest of the bureaucrats and politicians and advertisers and this, that and the other the ad had to get through to finally get to the point of publication? I don’t think it would have gone all the way up to Boris if the ads bore racial slander instead of slander against sexual orientation.

  6. European Citizen

    I thought about your campaign when I read about the story and I admit I could not make up my mind about whether the ads should have been banned. I can see how all sorts of abhorrent massages could find their way on buses but this has the advantage of making them a subject of discussion thus allowing different voices to be heard. Otherwise people just feel it’s all ‘PC gone mad’ etc. Yes, they are offensive and provocative but nowadays people seem to get offended too easily. On the other hand, there must be a balance. I suppose ads calling for tolerance (Get over it! Move on with your life! etc) are OK. If somebody feels that they have been ‘cured’ and want to share it what right do we have to stop them? Everyone has the right to be wrong.

    It’s Friday so I allow myself a less serious comment: how about a bus ad stating: Britain is not leaving the EU. Get over it! 🙂

  7. @Pete – I agree with the sentiment of your comment. But this is not the way to draw the line. I am very uneasy about the Mayor making the intervention on this issue. If the rules are wrong, allow too much offence to be caused etc., then the rules need to be changed, and applied to everyone. I don’t want a single political figure (of any political colour) having a veto over what can and cannot be advertised.

    @Jon – Yes, you are telling them to fuck off. Plenty of people are. Fair enough. I also do not want the ads to run, and see them as abhorrent. Keep campaigning, deface the ads, do whatever. BUT my objection is to the way Boris intervened in this, and in terms of advertising rules he does not have any grounds. As I wrote in a comment above he could very well have handled this differently, and something good could have come from it. Instead he’s set a precedent where the Mayor’s view can determine what’s advertised or not, and I do not want to let the Mayor of London make that call.

  8. I’m broadly opposed to hectoring commuters on any issue, it leads to ‘othering’ and takes us further down the not exactly shining path of American Liberal Victories. But since we are where we are I really struggle to park my subjectivity here, or to see a reason why I should. The ex gay brainwashing movement advocates a form of psychological abuse. Inevitable emotive what ifs: What if they were campaigning against ‘false rape allegations’; promoting their pride at leaving mixed race relationships; putting teardrops on ultrasound scans? A bus is not a placard, a line has to be drawn somewhere, and perhaps it should have been drawn before now. Public transport is not the place for extremely thinly veiled attacks of this nature.

  9. I don’t particularly care about “equally respecting the rules on both sides” when one side’s ad is likely to foster prejudice against an already maligned group of people. If someone wanted to run an ad saying something like “I’m not black and proud. Get over it.” we’d quite rightly tell them to fuck off – I have no problems with doing the same here.

    No matter what weak liberal “fairness” defence you give, approving this ad would alienate and foster hatred against gay people. No matter what you’d like to believe, words can cause harm – it would definitely result in homophobic outcomes and so if you support it’s approval you are inadvertently being a homophobe. Sorry.

  10. Just imagine what he *could* have said… He could have expressed that he was aghast at the ads, that he deeply disliked the message, but that the first thing to be checked would be that the rules had been respected. Then, if they had been, that he would be raising the issue nationally with the government to work out whether the law in this area is right or not.

    But that would require a measured approach from a high ranking British politician in a febrile political environment. Fat chance.

  11. True. Boris shouldn’t even have had to step in here.

  12. @Bettina – very fair comment, although your comment makes me think that there would be more grounds for the ASA to rule this anti-gay ad as factually inaccurate, and hence not compliant…

  13. I can see where you’re coming from. But let me point out where, to me personally, the crucial difference lies. This is of course a fine line. BUT some crucial factors differentiate the Atheist bus campaign (awesome) from the anti-gay campaign (not awesome). For instance, science. There is ample evidence that being queer cannot be cured (although sexual preference or even orientation may change during the life course, this is called sexual fluidity, but it tends to happen unwillingly), while there is a distinct lack of sound evidence that there is a God. Of course, there is no conclusive proof for either, but for this the Atheist campaign wisely introduced the little word “probably”, which the gay campaign does not.
    The Atheist campaign doesn’t try to change something we have no (or at least very little) control over. The anti gay campaign tries to do just that, even though it doesn’t make it explicit. It implies that there is something wrong with queer people. Sexual orientation is not a world view or a philosophy. Religion (or lack thereof) is. I’m just against bullying someone for their religion as I’m against bullying someone for their sexual orientation, but my gut feeling is telling me that Boris made the right choice here, for a change.
    Totally agreed on the German response to the Atheist bus though. It was ridiculous given the religious counter-examples the advertising authorities let pass.

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