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Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 13:44 UK

It started with a kiss

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Heinz advert
The controversial scene from Heinz's Deli Mayo ad
MPs are calling for an advert showing two men kissing to be reinstated after it was pulled following complaints. More than two decades after the first gay kiss on teatime TV, a kiss is clearly not always just a kiss.

Twenty-one years after Britain's first gay kiss on primetime TV prompted condemnation from MPs, a show of intimacy between two men clearly still has the capacity to shock television audiences.

Heinz has withdrawn an advert for its Deli Mayo brand one week into a five-week schedule. It depicts a man with a New York accent and dressed like a chef, making sandwiches in a homely British family kitchen. After a schoolboy and girl - who refer to the wise-cracking chef as "Mum" - dash through to pick up their sandwiches, their harried father appears, seemingly late for work.

The father says a fleeting goodbye but is summoned back by the chef for a more intimate farewell - a brief kiss.

We suggest you forward this to all your family and friends letting them know of the push for homosexual marriage by Heinz
American Family Association

The commercial was not allowed to be shown during children's programming because of Ofcom regulations governing fat, sugar and salt content. But more than 200 complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that the advert was "offensive" and "inappropriate".

A spokeswoman for the ASA says it's still assessing whether to investigate, but added that "homosexuality in itself is not a breach of the code" and complaints in the past about adverts showing same-sex kissing had not prompted any action.

Viewing the ad post ban, on YouTube, it's hard not to believe that Heinz must have foreseen controversy, and that this could all be part of an elaborate publicity stunt. The complaints were from people on "all sides of the debate", says Nigel Dickie of Heinz. He apologised for causing any offence but said the advert had to be withdrawn because it failed in its message.

"The mum transforms into a New York deli chef because this sandwich taste is so good," he says. "It's like having your own deli chef in the kitchen. It wasn't intended to be a gay couple, it was intended to be a humorous metaphor for these great-tasting sandwiches."

Boycott call

Yet one organisation failing to see the funny side is the American Family Association, which issued an action alert to members over the advert urging them to register their disapproval with the firm's US headquarters.

EastEnders' actors
EastEnders' Colin and Barry - their '87 kiss was more of a peck

"We suggest you forward this to all your family and friends letting them know of the push for homosexual marriage by Heinz," says the association on its website. "It is the kind of ad which we can expect to see in California as they prepare to vote on homosexual marriage. Homosexual marriage is illegal in England."

But the withdrawal of the advert has prompted some MPs to insist it be reinstated, while gay rights group Stonewall is leading a campaign to boycott Heinz.

"Some people could be offended by seeing a mixed race couple but the real issue is whether it's proportionate to withdraw an advert on that basis," says chief executive Ben Summerskill.

When EastEnders and children's series Byker Grove were doing this 15 or 20 years ago, that was pioneering television, he says. This time, it's just a joke in an advert.

"No nine or 10-year-old child is going to be outraged by two men kissing unless someone tells that child to be upset."

Outrage or titillation?

The EastEnders kiss was the first gay kiss on primetime television. In fact, it was more of a peck, planted by character Barry Clark on the forehead of his partner Colin Russell. (Audiences had to wait another two years before witnessing Colin in the first mouth-to-mouth kiss). Channel 4's Brookside followed in 1993 with a lesbian kiss that provoked as much titillation as it did disapproval. Then a year later children's drama Byker Grove depicted Noddy misreading the signs in the cinema with pal Gary.

1987: Barry and Colin in EastEnders
1993: Brookside's Beth and Margaret
1994: Noddy kisses pal Gary in the cinema in BBC's Byker
2003: Todd and Nick in Coronation Street
2006: Men kiss in Dolce & Gabbana ad

Although more and more soap operas, including The Archers on Radio 4, began to include gay storylines, the capacity to shock audiences with the content of these relationships did not diminish.

The Coronation Street kiss between Todd and Nick in 2003 was much discussed in the media and columnist Ulrika Jonsson was speaking for many when she complained that it should not have been broadcast before the watershed. A letter writer to the News of the World said "it seemed like sensationalism just to boost viewing figures".

Television adverts have been slower to embrace same-sex characters. A kiss between two men on a Dolce & Gabbana advert screened during the X Factor in 2006 provoked 89 complaints. And a few months later a lesbian kiss used by French Connection failed to boost sales. Two years ago a computer game Canis Canem Edit, originally called Bully, was given a 15 certificate because of a kiss between teenage boys.

Michael Cashman, who played Colin in that groundbreaking EastEnders scene, recalls how the kiss in 1987 - and the storyline - caused uproar in the media and questions in the House of Commons.

"Opposition ranged from 'Get this filth off our television screens' to 'you're promoting homosexuality and promoting the spread of Aids, children and families may be watching this," says Cashman. "We pointed out that it was preferable to have two people kissing than two people beating the hell out of each other.

Confused message

"Public taste has to be developed. Public opinion has to be led. And television and the media are central to that."

Britney and Madonna
When Britney and Madonna Kissed on stage, there was little censoring in the popular press

Cashman, who is now Labour's Member of European Parliament (MEP) for the West Midlands, regrets Heinz pulling what he describes as a "clever and innovative" reflection on modern life. But advertising commentator Jonathan Gabay quibbles more with the thrust of the message, calling it "confused". "The reality is that you don't automatically think 'New York equals a gay kiss'.

"That said, brands such as Heinz have to reflect the reality of the society occupied by its customers," says Mr Gabay. "It is not up to Heinz or any other brand for that matter to set moral agendas, although they do need to demonstrate a degree of ethics that address all people irrespective of their sexual preferences.

"All brands have to be mindful of audiences watching commercials and their sensibilities."

Brands like FCUK and Benetton have broadcast more erotic or shocking gay narratives, he says, but Heinz is a family brand that says "good, wholesome food" and there is always a risk of upsetting their customers.

"I believe that however much negative publicity this banning generates, history tends to show that brands like Heinz are more than capable of taking the flak squarely on the chin, or should I say in this case on the lips."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Such a silly complaint. First time I saw this, I got the joke, and while them actually going so far as to put the kiss in was a bit of a jolt, it was still done in a humorous manner rather than in any kind of sensual way. New York themed product turns mother into hard-talking but soft-hearted diner chef, family fails to notice what the rest of us see, with funny consequences. Classic comedy instrument, job done. You probably could have got away with a similar scene, handled with the same premise, in The Good Life or Monty Python and no-one would have been particularly bothered.
Mark P, Birmingham UK

Do we now need protection against metaphors? What's next - irony? Then our whole social structure will collapse. Come on, Britain, get a grip. No, not in that way!
Jezz, St Albans

I found this advert offensive, but not because of two men kissing. I was offended by the fact that a mother was compared to a short-order chef. Is that how mothers should be represented?
Ann, Glasgow

The MPs calling for this ad to be re-instated shows how disgusting our representatives have become.
Brian Keith, Ellesmere, England

As a proud gay man I don't care if they kiss is meant as a modern twist on the conventional family or a joke it helps to show that its normal. There are six million gay people in the UK, I am sure they are Heinz customers as well. Well done Heinz.
Chris, London

Why does Heinz assume the stereotype of a New York chef being a bloke and also the wife being the one to make the sandwiches in this day and age. I don't think anyone should care less about who is kissing frankly.
Roger, Watford

The real question is - "Is homosexuality legally acceptable as a lifestyle in Britain?" If the answer is no then ban away. If the answer is yes, then you are submitting the censorship laws to the often biased/bigoted views of the non-homosexual majority. The larger question might be: "Should we fully inform children that there are both heterosexual and homosexual alternatives and let them see role models and examples of each in the media?" If we are not going to inform them thus, aren't we simply saying that heterosexuality is the default position - heterosexuality is the only OK form of sexuality to show to children? Is not this a meta-prejudice demonstrating that all other alternatives are inferior, subordinate and morally suspicious?
Nigel McBain, Kingston upon Thames, England

A cynical publicity stunt by Heinz. I hope their shock tactics fail miserably. Heinz have offended both homosexual militants and normal people, albeit for opposite reasons. Now everyone can boycott Heinz to protest at their inconsiderate behaviour.
Andy, London

I also did a double take when I saw this advert. Having grown up in the era where homosexuality is regularly shown on screen even I thought this was a step too far. It is not only unnecessary and confusing for young children, but also serves to emasculate the man even further. He is essentially ordered to kiss the "Deli Chef" which he does full on the lips. This emasculation of the male character within household adverts is insidious with many adverts of today, now showing men being bullied into homosexual acts in their own kitchens is taking it to a new extreme.
Andy, Stourbridge

Not seen it. Don't want to see it. If equal sexes want to kiss etc then it's up to them. I don't want it pushed in my face as normality nor to see it advertising any type of product. This is just cheap marketing to cause a big stir.
Phil Ashton, Sheffield

The greater controversy should be to do with the claim that a mediocre sandwich spread makes you feel like you are in a New York deli. But I digress. I honestly thought we were past all this too. Guess I am a little naive. We live in a world that faces war and terrorism, we are watching the slow erosion of our civil liberties, but what really gets people outraged is an advert that includes a kiss between two men.
Melissa Saeland, Menai Bridge, North Wales

So it's perfectly all right to show adverts for computer games where people are shooting/punching/kicking seven bells out of anyone who happens to be passing, but a kiss between two men is enough to outrage everyone who's ever opened the Daily Mail to such a state where they get the advert banned. Next thing you know, women will be wanting to vote...
Pete, London

I was appalled at the advert. Having young children calling a man "mum" was sad, confusing, and so very wrong. Seeing same sex kissing is stomach-churning to most people who are not homosexual. Please keep adverts to appeal to the majority. I feel this was possibly deliberate to get discussion going and to brain wash people into eventually seeing these things as normal. What a sad reflection on life today.
Joan Bailie, Grimsby, Lincs, UK

Are people worried they may catch gay eating this stuff? Oh no Heinz meanz gayz. Get a grip. And Stonewall shut up about a boycott because Heinz take the proverbial out of us gays. Don't you think something like Mardis Gras damages our image more?
Stephen, West Derby

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