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Ice cream ad with pregnant nun
Ice cream, sex and blasphemy

Posted on 30 October 2010, 3:26

It was Häagen-Dazs who first put ice cream and sex together in a commercial. Their TV ads in the mid-90s showed sexy young couples spoon-feeding each other with creamy gloop, and suddenly ice cream had passed the age of consent and was an adult rather than a kid thing.

So when ice cream maker Antonio Federici launched a campaign of magazine ads, they decided to go a bit further along the road of naughtiness. This summer, their two ads featured a pregnant nun and two Catholic priests about to move in for a kiss (click the links to see large images of the ads). ‘We Believe in Salivation’ was the text on the priests ad.

Eighteen people complained when they were run in the UK’s Grazia, The Lady and Look magazines. In two judgments, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld the complaints and ruled that each ‘ad must not appear again in its current form’. The reason? The priests ad ‘was likely to be interpreted as mocking the beliefs of Roman Catholics and was therefore likely to cause serious offence to some readers’.

That sentence has the word ‘likely’ twice, which should have given the ASA a very good reason to think a bit harder about this poor judgment. The adjudications are here and here and include the defence put up by Antonio Federici.

The National Secular Society has complained that the ASA is ‘reintroducing blasphemy restrictions back into Britain’, two years after the offence was abolished by parliament – and it’s hard to disagree with that. Religious faith in Western culture is publicly debated today as it has never been before and it’s largely lost the deference and privilege which used to surround it like a shabby halo.

The weapon it still has, though, is a passive-aggressive one: ‘Don’t offend us, because our beliefs are sacred and above humour and mockery.’ It’s a weapon which has clearly worked wonders with the ASA.

A few years ago, we ran a competition on Ship of Fools called The Laugh Judgment, in which we invited readers to send us the funniest and most offensive religious jokes they knew. One thousand jokes were sent in, and we published the best of them so we could talk about what made them so funny and so offensive.

I noticed at the time that the most popular jokes included a small cast of stock comedy characters: the Nun, the Pope, Mother Superior, the Priest, the Bishop. All of them were put into comedy situations involving sex. It has ever been thus, since the time of Chaucer at least. As a subject, sex and religion simply is funny, because the latter makes such heavy weather of the former.

pregnant pope advert

The Antonio Federici ads are hardly the height of original comedy, and so there’s really no reason for surprise or offence. Even nuns and priests make these sorts of jokes behind closed doors. And British advertising used to understand that too, as witnessed by the press ad above from the 1980s. People probably complained then, but the ad still ran.

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