Elephant Man: A review

You have one week more to get to see Fourth Monkey’s superb production of Elephant Man at the atmospheric little theatre behind the Brockley Jack pub – and atmospheric is no exaggeration. From the moment the doors open and you search for a seat immersed by the fog of late Victorian London, you will be gripped by the tightness of the script, the minimalist but symbolic scenery and the brilliance of the acting.

As the play’s writer, Steve Green, acknowledges in his programme notes, much has been written about Joseph Merrick and the main protagonists in his story – Frederick Treves, the surgeon, and Tom Norman, the freak-show owner. But this is a powerful exposition of the moral tangle they were all caught up in – of which Merrick was for so long a victim.

The characterisation and ingenious sculpting and dressing of Merrick are particularly distinctive – and Daniel Chrisostomou is outstanding as he suffers the burden of the part, turning from the outcast into a loveable human being. And the symbolism of the last scene was not lost on me as he throws off his shackles, the imprisonment of his disfigurement.

A must-see – and especially as I gather the Broadway version opening in London in May has a different take on the story.

Elephant Man is at the Brockley Jack until 21st February. Further dates in Canterbury, Wolverhampton, Hereford, Dorchester and Bridport. More info…

How now, Powwownow?

It’s now more than a week since Changing Faces went public with our campaign against Powwownow’s ‘Avoid the Horror’ campaign which, in one specific advert, used images that were – for me and many of our supporters – just too close for comfort in depicting ‘zombies’ which actually resembled people with burns scarring wearing compression masks as is common in burns treatment.

IMG_4843As I said in my original post last Monday, we knew that our objection would be controversial. We knew that some people would see nothing wrong in the advert, and wonder what all the fuss is about. But what became clear over the course of the last week is that whilst it did divide opinion, the majority of our supporters saw the offence and recognised that Powwownow had got it wrong.

Here are a selection of the comments we have received to be sent on to Powwownow:

I was diagnosed with cancer December 2013 and had to have major surgery and as a result I have facial scars and an eye removed. I’ve also had another 6 operations since and have rarely left the house, except for hospital appointments, since because I am scared of public reactions.

I had to write to let you know that I found you advertisement campaign sole destroying , nasty, ignorant, offensive and insensitive and I would imagine many other people in my shoes would too. I want you to know that your words, Avoid the horror’ in particular makes me upset., in fact I’m crying now just reading it again. Those words linked with those pictures are so damaging.

Ignorance like this these days with that imagery and language is inexcusable. You may think it’s not discriminatory to people with facial disfigurements but as one of them I’m telling you , you are wrong. You should have done more research. – Lorraine

I was so pleased to hear of Powwownow’s initial response regarding the campaign ‘avoid the horror’. I thought at last a company that listens and acts when it is found to be causing offence. I was hugely disappointed when the company then reinstated the ad. I am truly sad that principles are so easily discarded in favour of profit. – Sandra

Society seems to target facial disfigurement or difference all too often, people become the subject of ridicule and fear because of campaigns like this which encourage the general public to make fun of difference or disability. The people who designed this campaign should walk a day in the shoes of someone who looks different. They should have to face the stares, the comments and bullying that is lived with because the difference is so easily on show on their face.

What makes it worse is that wearing a mask is a medical treatment and is something which probably has a lot of discomfort with it. Would they mock people so readily who were undergoing any other medical treatment?

Yes – the campaign might be meant to be zombies but the people in the picture aren’t zombies – they are just wearing a mask.

This campaign is a form of bullying and will now create targets out of people who have to wear masks. It’s a means of inciting hatred and encouraging anti social behaviour. What a terrible idea.

My child has a difference in appearance that has meant we have not been able to go to soft play areas because of other children calling him a zombie. This campaign doesn’t show my son that his future has any hope that we are going into a brighter future. How will he become independent and self confident with images like this facing him? – Vicky

I sincerely urge you to reconsider using this Zombie advert. Please please try to have some empathy with the people you are hurting.

The abuse that person with facial disfigurement often receive in public transport areas can already be quiet horrendous – do you really want to be part of making this situation worse, arguably even unbearable?

It takes courage to do take a stand and do the right thing. – Mary

I am unimpressed by your advert showing people with wounds on their face labelled as ‘horror’. At first I wondered whether I was justified to feel offended – and I do wonder still – but I can’t help but feel it is an insensitive advert, which I know from reading Changing Faces’ Facebook comments is deeply offensive to some people. Of course you’re perfectly entitled to display these images but perhaps you’d like to read some of the comments and then decide whether you’re making the right decision to continue the advert? Or ask employees of yours living with a disfigurement how they find the advert? It is a simple case of humans being kind to other humans, empathising, respecting and saying sorry for the mistake by making a change. – Kathryn

I am writing to express my sadness and disappointment at the decision not to withdraw the poster campaign. I am the parent of a child who was born with a cleft lip and palate. The media and film industry too often use a facial flaw or defect to signify a ‘flawed’ or defective personality. The villain in Disney’s Lone Ranger was given a cleft lip and broken nose, he wasn’t even a typical Disney Baddie, he was a sadistic cannibal to boot. If you don’t personally know someone who has been affected by a facial abnormality you may not realise the distress and emotional pain the #Avoidthehorror campaign is causing. It’s time for the media to stop targetting the vulnerable for shock value. – Karina

A very nasty campaign. Changing Faces’ robust response is very powerful, and I commend them for it in the face of what must have been great disappointment. Powwownow’s shameful marketing campaign is incompetent, ignorant, insulting and intolerant. Maybe one day they’ll join the real world and discover the best in people, but instead – as Changing Faces have indicated – they have succeeded in continuing to make the public sphere a hostile place for anyone who is visibly disfigured. What a contrast to the opposing story in the North East where £200K was raised for a victim of a mugging. PowwowNow and Homeland have rejected an opportunity to do the right thing, and for that they can be pitied. They will never have the strength of character that Changing Faces epitomises. – June

I have to travel to Waterloo for work every day and this morning i was ‘welcomed’ by a vast selection of awful recurring images on the advertising boards all over the westbound platform. Monday mornings are bad enough without feeling disrespected before I even get to work. I think it is disgraceful that such a large company have not only been allowed to advertise like this, but have also now developed their project by releasing even more discriminating images. – Jenni

I find this really, really offensive. Is Powwownow inferring that because I – and many others – have been burned in an accident and have had to wear pressure masks or garments for 18 months afterwards, we are to be treated as “HORRORS”?. Well that is not my view and I now know one company which I believe is horrific and should be avoided. Please share/like and let powwownow know that you are horrified by their view of disfigurement. This is really sad. – Richard

I think it’s the way in which the zombies are depicted here that is the issue – the masks that the zombies are.wearing are very similar to masks that burns survivors wear so if my son or daughter or indeed myself wore a mask like that and saw this advert I’d be a bit shocked! I think it is a little bit insensitive and more research should have been done by the creative team before the final advert went out. – Rachael

Unnecessary powwownow.. if you offend a human being and especially a person who might have suffered trauma or pain in their life journey ..why would you inflict this insult? This is foolish and a business faux pas never mind a moral one. Get your community head on..ditch the arrogance and face up to your social responsibility. Don’t make beautiful human beings feel alienated. – Colleen

This is quite shocking really. So incredibly insensitive. I would expect more from companies in this day and age, it’s downright disrespectful, such a shame. – Laura

What the hell – they’re wearing the masks to aid healing of a severe facial injury, you wouldn’t taunt someone for wearing a cast on a broken arm! These poor people are going through a horrible time and this is what people decide to say about them? How can people be so callous and immature?! Would they refuse to wear one of these masks if they had such a bad injury to their face? Who are these people?!?! – Amber

It’s clear from these comments that many of our supporters found the advert offensive, distasteful and for some it was so upsetting that it made them cry. To provoke such a reaction must surely render any advertisement unacceptable.

Doubtless some people will agree with Powwownow and say that the adverts ‘just’ depict zombies. But as Vicky’s comments show, it’s ‘just’ such depictions of ‘zombies’ that lead to playground taunts, bullying and, for others, abuse in the workplace, the pub, whilst out shopping, and on public transport.

Our rationale in standing up to the advert was that it caused offence. Becki said it best on Facebook: “Changing Faces is an organisation that exists to support people with facial differences. It is therefore totally appropriate for them to come out fighting on their behalf. It is ok if not everyone is offended or upset by these adverts but if just ONE person who lives with this daily IS, then good for Changing Faces for stepping up. They are giving people a voice.”

We await the verdict of the Advertising Standards Authority in response to our complaint about this advert, but we are confident that the stories and experiences of our supporters, outlined so eloquently above, prove the point: Powwownow’s advert was offensive, disrespectful, distasteful and likely to legitimise bullying amongst some young people. The fact that they agreed, and then back-tracked, shows that the rights of people with disfigurement still lose out to aggressive marketing campaigns.

Companies and the advertising agencies they employ must start to listen to the voices of real people like Becki who, like Changing Faces, will no longer stand for such facial prejudice.

Why powwownow’s Zombie advert offends

Ten days ago I saw an advert on London’s transport network. Called ‘Avoid the Horror’, it featured a group of Zombies standing around a commuter on a packed tube train. Their faces display a variety of scars, bleeding mouths and exposed teeth, distorted by plastic masks.

It was a disquieting moment because I came face-to-face with this advert on King’s Cross station and the irony that this station was the scene of the worst station fire in the UK was also not lost on me – I got to know several of the survivors well in the years after that – and none of them found travelling on the Underground easy, silicon masks, scars and all.

Worse still, one of the ad’s Zombies closely resembled me and my face in the early months and years following the car fire in which I sustained 40% burns.

And the ad’s call to action to ‘Avoid the Horror’ is just as disturbing, reinforcing as it does the harmful association that people who wear masks as part of their treatment and who have burn scarring, are to be feared and avoided.

All this offence just to sell a conference call system.


Changing Faces has campaigned against the offensive use of facial scarring, asymmetrical or missing features and facial masks to deliberately incite horror, fear and revulsion in popular culture for many years – our Leo film was widely seen in cinemas and online.

And we have also been raising awareness of – drawing attention to – our society’s tendency in everyday speech to describe scarring as ‘horrific’ and disfigurement as ‘terrifying’. It is the language of the horror genre – and should remain in that only.

The problem with such popular cultural references is that, for those of us who actually do have facial scars or whose faces are asymmetrical as a result of cancer, strokes or birth conditions – one on 111 people according to a recent study – the way that people react to such images and language regularly spills over into the way we are treated in everyday life. And that matters because it can make the playground a no-go area and public transport to be avoided at all costs.

I have endured being called Freddie Kreuger and Phantom by total strangers in front of family or members of the public. Some of our clients have been called Monster, Cyclops or Alien. These insults are usually accompanied by loud laughter by the perpetrators or obscene facial gestures or running away.

Such language and imagery, if left unchallenged, subtly encourages the public to view anyone with a disfigurement with fear or avoidance or caution and it makes the individual feel vulnerable, disempowered and unlikeable. The word ‘Horror’, for example, immediately makes a judgement on a person’s appearance.

We would like to see this offensive and disempowering wording replaced with factual words and phrases like ‘extensive scarring’, ‘a person with a disfigurement’ (not ‘the disfigured’), ‘has burn scars’ rather than ‘suffers from burn scars’ and we advise the media accordingly.

The fact is that people suffer as a result of the discriminatory behaviour they encounter from others because they look different.

It is also insensitive and disrespectful to the survivors who live with scarring from their injuries sustained in the King’s Cross fire and the Paddington rail crash, and continue to use London’s transport system, to urge fellow commuters to recoil in horror from anyone whose face bears a resemblance to those in the advert.

So what happened next?

On Friday 23rd January, I emailed Jason Downes, the General Manager of PowwowNow, the company responsible for the campaign, and explained our views. I was very encouraged that he called me very quickly, listened and took on board our concerns.

After two hours he called me again to say he agreed this particular ad might well be offensive although they had not in any way intended it to be, and that he had given instructions for the digital adverts to be removed with immediate effect. He also undertook to review the other locations where the zombie ads appeared (such as in London taxis) and come back to me in the following week.

I knew that the ad campaign had cost the company £3 million to mount so this was a big vote of support for campaign for face equality for which I thanked him – and offered to publicise his support. He preferred no publicity and I agreed that.

Last Tuesday he called me – and I assumed I would hear the outcome of his review. Instead, he informed me that the ad was to be reinstated following an internal review with the marketing department and their creative agency, Homeland. I was summarily informed by the Marketing Director in an email that

“After this robust review, we have decided to re-instate the advert as a reflection of our belief in the creative concept, its clear reference to the fantasy horror genre and the fact that we are in no way targeting or discriminating against people with facial disfigurement.

We wish to re-iterate that there is absolutely no intention to offend anyone at all. In fact, this campaign is built around expressing sympathy for all people at the mercy of public transport and providing practical solutions to make their lives easier.”

I immediately asked them to reconsider. Jason Downes’ final words to me were that the firm would not be changing their mind.  End of the conversation.

Quite an about turn.

How does a marketing department and a creative agency decide whether or not an advert has caused offence to people with burn injuries?  Did they run a focus group with people like me? Did they contact Katie Piper? Did they contact Simon Weston, our Patron and Falklands veteran, Pam Warren, the King’s Cross fire survivor, or the 7/7 survivors like Davinia Douglass who was photographed clutching a surgical burn mask as she was helped out of a station? As far as I know none of them have been contacted.

I am quite sure that this campaign will divide opinion even amongst people with disfigurements but Changing Faces does not accept that images of Zombies or other characters from the horror genre which so closely resemble people with burn injuries or other disfigurements are fair game for marketing departments and ad agencies to sell their products – especially when the public are asked to ‘avoid the horror’.

The Equality Act 2010 protects people with disfigurements from discrimination but that should be a last resort. Businesses should be tuned up to the modern expectations of their customers today not using worn-out and offensive images to sell their services.

Changing Faces is determined to challenge any example of prejudicial portrayal because we are not living in the Middle Ages nor in a fantasy land nor in a horror movie. We live in the UK and it is time that people with disfigurements were given the respect and dignity they deserve.

I urge you to email powwownow@changingfaces.org.uk and have your say.