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.

Marketers may feature national flags in their marketing communications, provided that by doing so they do not cause serious or widespread offence or materially mislead consumers.

Be careful not to cause offence

Marketers should bear in mind that flags that are defaced, torn, or in any way modified have the potential to cause offence.

The ASA often receives complaints about the Union Flag being referred to as ‘the England flag’, it and other flags being displayed upside down and occasionally the ‘unofficial’ or the national flag of Ireland (frequently referred to as the Irish tricolour) being used to denote Northern Ireland. Also, merely using national flags and national or historical symbols in a commercial context can cause complaints, particularly if this coincidences with tragic current events.

However, the ASA is not necessarily likely to pursue complaints along these lines. As always, context is key. Whether or not the ad breaches the Code will very much depend on the overall impression and perceived message.

Avoid implying official recognition or endorsement

Marketers should avoid using flags or emblems to imply official recognition or endorsement if none exists.

The use of the Scottish Flag in an ad offering debt advice and solutions was considered to contribute to the consumer being given the misleading impression that the company offered services as part of an official scheme run by the Government (Scottish Advisory Service, 16 September 2009).

Prominent pictures of passports in front of a Union Flag were also judged likely to contribute to the misleading impression that a website, which charged a fee for checking passport applications, was an official website for Her Majesty’s Passport Office (UK Services & Support Ltd t/a UK Passport Offices, 1 July 2015).

On the other hand, two different ads which used images of actors dressed as of Yeomen Warders were ruled not to breach the Code. The ASA considered that no direct endorsement was implied as consumers were unlikely to infer that the ads depicted real Yeoman Warders (Aer Lingus Ltd, 25 July 2007, Norwich Union Insurance Ltd, 25 July 2007).

Take care not to imply a misleading country of origin

Marketers should take care not to use national emblems in a way that misleads consumers about a product’s national origin.

A website that featured the Union Flag prominently at the top of the landing page directly next to the name of the product, and displayed it as a background, was ruled against because the implication was that the product was either manufactured in the UK or distributed by a company based in the UK. Since this was not the case, the ad was considered misleading (DS Marketing Ltd, 28 November 2012).

Another website which displayed an emblem with 12 yellow stars was held to mislead consumers into understanding that the advertiser fell under EU jurisdiction and was subject to EU consumer laws whereas in fact it was not registered in an EU Member State (Strictly Electronics Ltd t/a, 28 March 2012 – it’s worth noting that the advertiser was registered in Guernsey where the CAP Code applies).

However, a campaign featuring a green-coloured version of the Union Flag was not considered likely to cause consumers to infer that EDF Energy was a British company because it was used in the context of a campaign to address environmental issues which tied in with their links to the London Olympics (EDF Energy Customers plc, 28 October 2009).

Make sure you get any requisite permission

Marketers wanting to use the Royal Arms and Emblems must not do so without prior permission from the Lord Chamberlain’s office. The ASA understands that the organisation Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) has a memorandum of understanding with the Royal Household that HRP would not endorse commercial companies or products.

CAP understands that, generally speaking, flags are unlikely to cause problems under Intellectual Property law due to their age. However, a newer flag could be protected by copyright. Marketers might want to seek legal advice if they have concerns.

See also 'Bank notes, Reproduction of' and ‘Royal Family’.

Updated 7 July 2016

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