This month Stephanie Davies looks at how well the world has progressed in awareness of offensive communications, but is shocked by reactions to a picture of a carrot!
A picture paints a thousand words. Which is why, to illustrate some training content we recently designed for a customer, my design team chose a photo of a comedy carrot. It resembled a pair of legs with a tiny carrot appendage hanging between them.
It was the type of thing Esther Rantzen got excited about on That’s Life in the 70s and 80s. The picture was a bit of a fun, because my organisation is all about fun.
The customer, however, did not see the funny side. They got the jitters and asked us to replace the picture with something less offensive. My offer to place a censor bar over the nubbin was rejected, even though that too would have been funny. But the client was adamant. The carrot could offend and had to go.
Which led me to ask: offend who? Admittedly, I didn’t check whether the carrot in the photo had given consent for its image to be used in training material for a multinational company, so maybe that was the problem.
Because surely the issue could not be that in a forward-thinking firm in 2021, a notional member of staff (possibly a time-travelling Victorian prude) might be offended by a comedically phallic piece of veg.
Just because something was accepted in the past, does not mean it is acceptable today, in our more enlightened times
The reality of the situation was more likely that the person overseeing the project was terrified that someone might be offended. By a carrot. Which is a sad place to end up at, but understandable, given the minefield we find ourselves in, where the wrong word or phrase can blow up in your face and cause irreparable damage to reputation.
If you are a business today with any form of comms; internal or external, website and social media, you are under the scrutiny of public gaze. And the public is full of people just itching to take offence, or to take things out of context so they can be offended.
If you are a comms gatekeeper, it’s your responsibility to ensure what you say and do is authentic, fair, defendable, balanced and justifiable. And increasingly, you need to be hyper aware of content that could be construed as offensive, even when no offence is meant.
In addition, not only are you held to account for the things you say and do today, you are also held to account for the things you did and said years ago. Fear of the all-seeing-eye is creating some interesting decision-making.
That organisations and individuals are much more aware of the impact their messages and content have on others is of course a good thing. This has led to some deep soul searching for many corporates. A flick through Disney+ shows just how far this new awareness goes.
Many classic Disney animations now carry content advisory notices for racism, updated recently with a strengthened message. Films such as Dumbo, Peter Pan and Jungle Book now flash up with a warning about stereotypes. The message here is that just because something was accepted in the past, does not mean it is acceptable today, in our more enlightened times.
It is why we don’t settle down anymore to watch sitcoms such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Are You Being Served or Mind Your Language. Some dinosaurs still mourn Mrs Slocombe’s pussy and offensive gay stereotypes.
They moan that it is political correctness gone mad. It is not. It is progress.
There is a difference between something that is truly offensive and something that is funny but has the potential to offend. That latter exists on a spectrum. Most rational people understand where the lines are. Comedy carrots, I would argue, are very much at the safer end of the spectrum.
But sometimes, in the complex grey areas, people are caught out so I can understand the caution that exists around humour, but it’s slightly sad if, at a time when we all need to relax a little and have a laugh, people are worried about something as innocuous as a cocky carrot.
About the author
Stephanie Davies is the founder of Laughology.