Your worst nightmare, underground: A black man

Someone complained to the ASA that a recent TV advert for Alton Towers about a new Nemesis ride suggested that the phrase ‘your worst nightmare, underground’ related to a black man seen in the ad, rather than an evil-looking egg that contains a new underground Nemesis ride.

I particularly like the bit where the complainant infers that a frightened woman is not running away from the frightening ride, but the black fella; his nostrils flared in racial anger.

Essentially, I just though this was really funny.

Two TV ads promoted a new theme park ride:

Ad (a) showed two young girls playing marbles. One marble rolled away and fell down a drain before landing on a large egg which was in a dark underground cavern with flickering electric lights. The egg cracked and a bright light shone from inside it. There was a close-up of a black man’s wide open eyes and his nose. Another close-up showed a lizard-like, reptilian eye opening. Various shots showed people screaming and a close-up of a white character’s eye open wide. A white woman ran down an underground passage, looking nervously over her shoulder, and closed a door behind her. The voice-over stated “The Nemesis legend continues. Nemesis Sub Terra. Your worst nightmare, underground.”

Ad (b) also showed the large egg in the underground cavern with flickering lights. There was a longer shot showing the black man’s eyes and nose in close up and on-screen text alongside his face stated “YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE, UNDERGROUND”.

The complainant believed that the ads portrayed the black man as threatening and therefore objected that the ad was racist and offensive. He claimed that the black man’s nostrils were flared as if in anger and that ad (a) could be seen to imply that the white woman in the subsequent shot was running away from the black man. He was also concerned that the text “YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE, UNDERGROUND” appeared alongside the shot of the black character’s face in ad (b).

Merlin Entertainments Group Ltd (Merlin) said both ads were a continuation of the legend of the original Nemesis rollercoaster which positioned the ride as an alien creature. The ads for the new ride, Nemesis Sub-Terra, showed that Nemesis had laid an egg which had been dormant underground. They said in ad (a) the marble which rolled away from the two girls cracked the egg causing it to hatch and release the alien. They said shots of the egg shaking/breaking and the alien itself, were interspersed with numerous others of individuals reacting, in fear, as the alien egg hatched. They argued that the phrase “YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE, UNDERGROUND” was a consistent tagline, used in both ads, and therefore clearly referred to the newly hatched alien rather than the black man in ad (b).

Merlin said they shot a number of actors reacting to the egg hatching, both male and female and of different ethnicities. They said all the actors were instructed to look nervous and scared. They emphasised the fact that the shot of the black actor was chosen because he gave one of the best reactions. They refuted the claim that the black man was threatening and that his nostrils were “flared as if in anger”. Instead they argued that he displayed the same emotions of fear and panic as the other actors in the ad.

Merlin argued that, in ad (a), the reactions of the people surrounding the egg, which included the black man and the white woman running down the underground passage, were all expressions of fear as the alien hatched from the egg. They did not believe that the ad suggested that the woman was running away in fear from the black man.

Clearcast strongly endorsed Merlin’s comments and did not believe the ads were racist or offensive. They felt that it was clear from the ad that the nemesis, and therefore the cause of fear, was the egg and its contents. They argued that the shot of the alien eye that was seen just after the startled look on the black man’s face confirmed that.

Clearcast argued that the shot of the black man was chosen because of his surprised reaction and that the shot of the woman running was chosen because it echoed “a commonly accepted vignette in horror films” of a damsel in distress fleeing from an evil alien.

Not Upheld

The ASA considered that in the context of both ads, the shots of the egg shaking and cracking which preceded the close-up of the black man’s face, would lead the viewer to believe that the black man’s expression portrayed fear and shock as a result of watching the alien emerge, rather than anger.

Although the black man was the only character that featured in ad (b), the same shot of his face (intending to portray fear) was used, and given the long shot of the egg starting to hatch which preceded the close-up of his face, we considered that the accompanying words “YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE, UNDERGROUND” would generally be understood to refer to the hatching alien rather than the black man.

While we understood that the complainant felt that in the ad (a), the shot of the white woman running down the passage could be interpreted as her fleeing from the black man in fear, we noted that the shot of the black man’s face was followed by shots of the alien’s eye and other characters screaming and looking scared, before the longer shot of the woman running away in fear. We therefore considered that most viewers would believe that the woman was running away from the hatching alien.

We considered that most viewers would be likely to see the black man’s race as incidental to the narrative of the ads. We also considered that most viewers would interpret the black man’s facial expression in both ads as fearful and would understand that he, like the other human characters in ad (a), was afraid of the hatching egg and the alien inside. We therefore concluded that the ad was unlikely to be seen as racist and unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

We investigated the ads under BCAP Code rule 4.2 (Harm and offence) but did not find them in breach.

Result: Not upheld