Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.
The UK is undoubtedly a nation of animal lovers and marketers are advised to take care when featuring them in their marketing communications. The ASA frequently receives complaints about the way in which animals have been featured, expressing concern about how the animals have been treated and/or the risk of harm and emulation.
The ASA will always take concerns about animal safety in ads seriously, but will be careful to look at each case on its own merits. Even if the ASA decide that the presentation is the right side of the line in terms of the Codes, the number of complaints these issues usually attract means they often become subject to extensive media coverage, comment and debate, as well as criticism from animal protection groups and consumers alike.
- Take care of your animals
- Be mindful of the risk of emulation
- Avoid unduly graphic or upsetting imagery
- Ensure animal health claims are compliant
Take care of your animals
Regardless of the content of the ad, all animals featured should be well looked after and must not be harmed or distressed in the process. CAP recommends seeking the support of a veterinarian or other relevant expert in the health and welfare of animals to ensure that they are properly treated and cared for throughout production.
Be mindful of the risk of emulation
However light-hearted the execution, marketers should take care when considering depicting anything that is potentially harmful to animals and could feasibly result in harmful emulation.
Particular care is advised when showing animals being fed or eating something that could harm them, and marketers must ensure this isn’t likely to lead to dangerous emulation. The ASA received over 200 complaints about an ad which showed a dog being fed Christmas pudding and although the ASA didn’t consider the ad likely to cause harm in that case and felt that, generally speaking, pet owners would know not to feed their animals foods which are poor for their diets – marketers need to make sure their ads don’t condone or encourage behaviour that could harm animals (Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc, February 2013).
Similarly, interactions with and behaviour towards animals can often result in complaints. The RSPCA, among others, complained that an ad which included a scene showing a young child sitting on the back of a large dog was irresponsible as it could encourage and condone emulation, resulting in harm. In that case, the combination of a scheduling restriction meaning that children were less likely to see the ad unaccompanied and the dressing up of the child making the scene appear highly fantastical, led the ASA to conclude that the ad was unlikely to result in emulated behaviour harmful to animals so didn’t break the rules (Photobox Ltd, March 2018). See also Boots UK Ltd, February 2013 for a case concerning using a hairdryer on a dog and Tesco Stores Ltd, February 2014 for a case involving a scene of cat misjudging a jump.
However, it is never guaranteed that a fantastical or humorous depiction will ensure an ad falls the right side of the line. Marketers are best advised to familiarise themselves with the welfare needs of the animals they feature, including the suitability of the environment, diet and behaviour patterns, and be mindful of these things when making creative decisions. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has produced authoritative guidance (available here) on the responsible use of pet animals in advertising intended to support decision-making that promotes positive animal health and welfare, which offers a good place to start in learning more about the particular welfare needs of different animals.
Avoid unduly graphic or upsetting imagery
Marketing communications should not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, or undue fear or distress. Marketers distributing material that features images of animals which some may find upsetting, for example charities seeking donations to support animal welfare projects, should carefully consider their audience and whether the ad is suitable for the media they are using.
Consumers tend to be more forgiving of upsetting content appearing in ads for charitable causes and the ASA balances the likely distress with the cause or issue being promoted, to determine whether the latter outweighs the former. An ad depicting a malnourished dog, for example, is more likely to be considered acceptable in an ad for a charity working towards helping such animals, than an unrelated organisation or commercial company.
However, the audience and targeting is still important for such campaigns. An email from PETA that included an animated GIF loop of an animal being hit by a factory worker and collapsing on the floor in a scene that also showed a large pile of dead animals, was judged not to breach the Code, not only because of its aim to raise awareness of a serious issue of animal cruelty, but also because it had been sent only to those signed up to receive emails from PETA and because the subject line ‘Help Protect Dogs from Slaughter’ provided a degree of warning regarding the content of the email (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation, September 2017). Similar imagery appearing in untargeted media or media targeted at a more general audience would be very unlikely to be considered acceptable.
Marketers wanting to create ‘humorous’ executions, which depict animals in situations or environments which could be potentially unsafe, should ensure that any hazardous scenarios are obviously fictitious and that there is no implication that the animal has been, or will be, harmed.
Ensure animal health claims are compliant
Veterinary medicines must be licensed by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and any claims made for licensed veterinary medicines must conform to the claims in the product’s summary of product characteristics (rule 12.11).
If the product is not a licensed medicinal product, marketers must take care not to present it as one in their ads. Any direct or implied claims that a product is effective in treating an adverse health condition in animals, for example a claim about behaviour improvement in horses that refers to a nutrient deficiency, is likely to be seen as medicinal (Calinnova Ltd, September 2014). Medicinal claims made for an unlicensed product break the rules, regardless of any evidence held (see also ‘Healthcare: Medicinal Claims’).
Marketers may, however, may make claims about the health benefits of their products, for example that a supplement improves equine joint health or a product repels fleas, ticks and other external parasites, provided that they hold robust clinical evidence to support them (rule 12.1) – without this such claims are likely to be considered misleading and unsubstantiated (Aviform Ltd, September 2016; Goldstar Internet Services LP, March 2017). For further advice on substantiation generally, see here.