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.

Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers should not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention (Rule 4.2).

An appeal to fear to encourage prudent behaviour or to discourage dangerous or ill-advised actions may be considered justifiable; however the fear likely to be aroused should not be excessive. Marketers should avoid exaggerating the potential risks caused by not buying their products, especially if targeting the elderly or vulnerable. In 2012 the ASA upheld a complaint against an ad for an electrical company that stated "Old fuse boards can Cause Fires & Electrical accidents can Kill You". It considered the claim was presented in a manner that exaggerated the dangers of electrical fires and was likely to cause unnecessary fear and distress (AG Ltd Group, 28 November 2012). An ad for private insurance that referred to an “NHS Crisis” and “excess deaths” was upheld on a similar basis (eSMart Media Ltd, 2 October 2013). However an ad that described osteoporosis as a “silent killer” was deemed acceptable because the disease commonly caused hip fractures, which carried an increased risk of death (Life Line Screening UK Ltd, 9 January 2013). While the description may have caused fear to some readers, in this context it was considered justifiable.

The ASA has accepted certain distressing approaches in campaigns to raise public awareness of a social problem and the action that could be taken to prevent it (Barnardo’s, 4 July 2001 and April 2000). That said, advertisers in these sectors should still be cautious when using hard hitting material. In 2013, the ASA upheld a complaint about a Cancer charity mailing that was found to have used a threatening tone and was considered likely to cause serious distress to those who had been affected by cancer and other vulnerable members of the public. (Cancer Research UK, 30 January 2013). If the marketing communication is in a medium likely to be seen by children, care should be taken to ensure the claims and images do not distress children (Department of Health, 16 May 2007) or encourage emulation (British Heart Foundation, 19 June 2002). The Voluntary Sector Marketing article provides advice on the use of shock-tactics by charities, pressure groups and other non-commercial organisations.

Gory or frightening images may be relevant when advertising horror films or literature, but advertisers should ensure that the images are not too extreme and are suitably targeted. The ASA has upheld against ads that featured images of a flayed corpse wrapped in barbed wire (Zenimax Europe Ltd, 18 September 2013) and of a zombie being attacked by a blender (Entertainment One UK Ltd, 19 December 2012). Special care should be taken in mediums that may be viewed by children.

Direct marketing that could be mistaken for official documentation has the potential to cause distress; the ASA has upheld several complaints about ads from estate agents that implied the addressee’s home was for sale (Spicerhaart Agents Ltd, 8 September 2013; William H Brown, 10 July 2013).

See ‘Voluntary Sector Advertising' and ‘Children: General’.

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