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.
No matter how sensitively it is handled, the topic of death nearly always generates complaints. The public tends to be more sympathetic if the depiction of death is relevant to the product (such as funeral homes, life insurance or smoke alarms) or the message (charity appeals). Charities, such as Help the Aged and Barnardos, have used images of death without breaching the Code but companies that use or refer to death gratuitously, especially in badly-targeted media, are in danger of causing serious or widespread offence. Marketers should also be mindful that, not only do they risk offending readers but causing fear or distress. An animal welfare charity used a poster featuring the convicted murderer Steven Barker, alongside a list of his various convictions, to encourage the public to report animal cruelty. This was considered exploitative and an unjustified use of shock tactics with regards the intended message (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation t/a PETA, 3 February 2010).
Sometimes it is difficult to judge accurately how the target audience will react to images of death; for example, the ASA upheld complaints about an ad for a sardonic drama set in a funeral parlour, despite its stylized creative treatment and relevance to the product (Channel Four Television Corporation, 28 May 2003). More recently, however, the ASA rejected complaints about a press ad for a drama programme, “Afterlife”; it was in the style of a supernatural lonely hearts column and featured messages such as “YOUNG BOY 8 yrs old, fatal car crash. Can someone tell my mummy I forgive her? … CARLEY 8 yrs old, abducted and murdered. Please help me find the man who killed me. I’m so scared here … WOMAN 36, smothered in sleep by violent husband, now also dead. I’m trapped with him and he won’t let me go. Someone please help … ”. Complainants objected that the ad was distressing, offensive and insensitive but the ASA noted it reflected the nature of the programme and considered that it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress to readers of the newspapers in which it appeared (ITV Network Ltd, 6 December 2006).
But, even if an ad reflects the nature of the advertised product or service, advertisers should be aware that the use of graphic images can cause serious offence. A magazine insert, for a cleaning firm specialising in dealing with undiscovered deaths, showed the outline of a human form made from the residue of a decomposing body; the ad prompted complaints that the images were excessively graphic, offensive and distressing. Although the advertiser argued it was an accurate portrayal of the work undertaken, the ASA concluded that the ad was unacceptable in an untargeted medium (Clearway Environmental Services (UK) Ltd, 25 July 2007).
Marketers who depict situations or environments in which people have been killed risk causing offence. For example, despite it clearly being a staged fashion shoot, the ASA received complaints about clothes models posing on a pedestrian crossing between two train platforms (Debenhams Retail plc, 21 November 2007).
References to the recently deceased should be used with caution. In 2009 the ASA upheld a complaint about an ad for ski helmets that referred to the very recent death of an actress in a skiing accident (The Ski & Outdoor Warehouse Ltd, 13 May 2009). However the ASA rejected complaints about ads for t-shirts celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher. It noted that the ad clearly linked the nature and purpose of the T-shirt to the actions of Baroness Thatcher during her time as Prime Minister, and that the ads were targeted at customers who had previously bought 'left of centre' merchandise (Philosophy Football, 29 May 2013). In this context the ASA considered the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.