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Opinion Piece: The Ads that attract the most complaints aren’t always the ones that need banning

23 January 2017

dangerAdvertising is everywhere. And despite ever more sophisticated targeting, we often see and hear the same ads: in the breaks of popular Saturday night TV shows; at the cinema; on our favourite commercial radio stations; on posters at our closest railway station... But sharing a viewing experience of the same ad is one thing; sharing the same view of that ad quite another.

Some people can’t abide the endless Christmas ads that seem to appear on our screens earlier each year.  Others can’t wait to see – and share – the latest Yuletide masterpieces. As a regulator, we’re here to listen to everyone’s views. And our over 50 years’ experience dealing with hundreds of thousands of complaints has given us a good idea of what gets people going. 

Last year, a number of the ads that made the Top 10 most complained about ads contained diversity and inclusion related elements. From burly men twerking in denim shorts and heels, to two women kissing, to members of the England Blind Football team allowing themselves to be the butt of a joke, to a wheelchair-using woman alluding to her active sex life.

Whilst many people saw those elements as presenting some positive messages about diversity, for example by helping to normalise characteristics, attitudes and sexual orientations that aren’t the most prevalent in our society, some others saw them as doing precisely the opposite.  For example, we received complaints that one of the Moneysupermarket ads was homophobic and could encourage hate crimes.

Deciding whether ads like these should be banned is a judgement call.  Decisions around issues like offence and harm are subjective and – given the extent to which we respond to ads in different ways - we know we won’t please everyone. But that doesn’t mean we don’t consider the complaints and the issues very carefully indeed. We take into account the audience who are likely to see the ad, the context in which the ad appears, the product it’s promoting as well as prevailing standards in society. And to help judge those standards, from time-to-time we commission major consumer research to find out what worries people and where they think the line should be drawn.

Despite the high numbers of complaints last year’s Top 10 generated, in all cases we thought people generally would see the ads in a positive light and that the boundary between bad taste and serious or widespread offence had been navigated well enough, often through the application of sensible scheduling restrictions.

For 2016 at least, the ads that attracted the highest numbers of complaints weren’t the ones that needed banning. Which brings me to a couple of other insights from the Top 10.

Our action leads to thousands of misleading ads being amended or withdrawn each year. And it’s misleading advertising that’s often the justification for our key proactive work, with our tough action on broadband pricing in ads and our call for change to the way broadband speed claims are advertised being two high profile examples from last year. But there wasn’t one misleading ad in last year’s top 10.

That’s not as unusual as it sounds: while the bulk of our work is the sometimes unglamorous task of tackling misleading advertising, it’s often the matters of harm and offence that make for the most complained-about cases and grab the headlines. 
And it’s often TV ads – still hitting mass audiences – that dominate the list too. Around half of the cases we now deal with are actually about online advertising, particularly companies’ own claims on their own websites and social media spaces. But last year, nine of the Top 10 most complained about ads were seen on TV.  In 2015, it was a straight 10 out of 10 for TV. If its harm and offence that predominates on issue grounds, it’s TV that dominates as the medium.

Wherever an ad appears, if it pushes the boundaries it’ll invariably land better with some people than others. We thought the ads that attracted the largest numbers of complaints last year fell the right side of the line. But our Top 10 proves once again that advertising’s more than capable of dividing opinion.

 

By Guy Parker, Chief Executive

Guy became Chief Executive of the ASA, the UK regulator of ads in all media, in 2009.  Responsible for executing the ASA’s strategy to make UK ads responsible, he oversees all functions of the ASA system.
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