Netflorist’s ‘gay’ Harold not offensive enough, rules ad regulator


The camp-sounding character of Harold in the Netflorist radio ads has been accused of stereotyping gay men. But he’s now been given the thumbs up by the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB).

Love him or hate him, Harold has over the years become a staple on South African radio as he offers “advice” through his “Harold’s Relationship Hotline” – all in aid of selling flowers and gifts through online retailer Netflorist.

His affected and over-top intonations are likely grating for many listeners. For some, such as PJ Henning, he’s also offensive to gay people. Henning lodged a complaint with the regulator after hearing one of the ads on Radio 702.

In the spot, Harold offers advice to a woman about her mother in law, suggesting that she send her a gift through Netflorist to keep her happy. At one point Harold exclaims to the woman, “Wax my sack, we have a winner!” something that Henning felt was not appropriate for radio.

Perhaps, more significantly, Henning also strongly objected “to the typecasting of the character in reference to gay people or effeminate men” and argued that “the lisp used by Harold is offensive and demeans men who may be effeminate and speak in this way.”

Netflorist responded rather cheekily that it was sorry to hear “that the subject of male grooming has caused offence to a listener,” adding, “We do not discriminate against those that chose to groom or those that don’t, we respect the choices of everyone.”

On the more serious matter of stereotyping, Netflorist stated: “Harold’s sexual orientation or preferences have never been revealed in any of our advertisements, nor have we ever felt the need to classify him. The reason we’ve been using this type of voice over for the last 20 years, is because of his ability to break through the clutter on radio which has led to a highly recognisable voice for our brand.”

The company then suggested that it was the complainant that was doing the stereotyping: “We do not believe that one’s lisp is an indicator of their sexual preferences, nor should it be misinterpreted as a signifier of a particular sexual orientation. We do not believe in stereotyping people based on the manner in which they speak.”

In its ruling, the ARB acknowledged that while some people might feel a discomfort with the words “wax my sack” it “cannot rule against every advertisement that causes some people discomfort” as this “alone is not sufficient cause to pull a commercial.”

Turning to the second, and more complex, aspect of the complaint, the directorate noted that the Harold character “has been used by the advertiser for several years and has become a well-known, and arguably well-liked, character in South African radio advertising.”

The ARB acknowledged that Netflorist’s submission that Harold’s sexuality has never been “outed” was somewhat disingenuous. It nonetheless accepted “the point that the assumption that Harold is gay perhaps does speak more to the stereotypes so entrenched in the listener than anything that is actually stated about Harold.”

Even if it was accepted that Harold is meant to be gay, said the ARB, it still did not mean that the depiction of a gay man as effeminate is offensive per se.

It stated: “In this commercial, and many others that feature Harold, the directorate would argue that the portrayal of Harold is not in any way negative or derisive. On the contrary, Harold has become a popular character in a humorous series of commercials. Harold is intended to amuse listeners, and he is not mocked or victimised in any way. In fact, Harold is arguably viewed as an astute confidante and the provider of sometimes sage, and certainly humorous, advice.”

The directorate did, nevertheless, accept that the commercial and the portrayal of the Harold character do indeed constitute a stereotype.

“It plays into a stereotyped and largely incorrect conception of how gay men speak and act, and the directorate does have a discomfort with this aspect of the Harold character. The use of stereotypes of minority groups who are often persecuted is not something that the directorate wishes to actively encourage.”

However, the directorate ruled that under the Code of Advertising Practice “it does not believe that the portrayal of Harold is offensive to the average reasonable consumer” and “that the stereotype in the commercial is intended to be humorous and not harmful, as it does not portray Harold in a negative light.”

It added: “The fact that Harold’s sexuality is never addressed or revealed, together with the fact that he is not ridiculed in any way, leads the directorate to the conclusion that the stereotype used in this commercial falls short of negative stereotyping.”

The complaint was dismissed on both counts.

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