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.
Rule 4.1 states that marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, and specifies that special care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age. Advertisers should take special care to ensure that references to or depictions of disability in advertising will not cause offence.
Using humour in ads can help to avoid causing offence but the use of humour does not negate any offence which may be caused by an ad. If an ad appears to mock disability or people with a disability it is likely to be considered offensive, even if this was not the advertiser’s intention. In 2002, the ASA received complaints about two posters that featured people of restricted growth; one featured three people of restricted growth who were too short to use public urinals and the other showed them unable to go on a fairground ride because they did not meet the height requirement. Although it considered the latter was likely to be seen as humorous, the ASA upheld complaints about the former because it mocked their ability to perform everyday tasks (Gallaher Group plc, 15 May 2002).
In 2014 the ASA upheld complaints about an ad that appeared around the time of the criminal trial of the Olympic and Paralympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius, and which featured text that stated “money back if he walks”. Whilst the ASA acknowledged that readers would understand that to be a reference to the outcome of a criminal trial, it also considered that the text was a clear reference to Oscar Pistorius’s disability and was likely to cause serious or widespread offence because it made light of disability (Paddy Power, 19 March 2014). Similarly, in 2013 the ASA upheld a complaint about a design company website that stated "Who said good creativity should cost an..." next to a picture of an amputee with one arm and leg. The ASA considered that the claim went further than simply being in poor taste and that using the image for a visual pun, made light of disability (B More Creative Advertising and Design Ltd, 9 January 2013).
A complaint about a press ad for a job which stated "Door Dwarfs required for the Hippodrome Casino, London. The Hippodrome is seeking to create a team of Britain's smallest bouncers - Door Dwarfs - for its new entrance in Cranbourne Street, Leicester Square” was upheld in 2014. The ASA considered it likely to cause offence because the use of alliteration in the term "Door Dwarfs" and the text "Britain's smallest bouncers" made the position look like a novelty and therefore mocked people of restricted growth by going beyond an informative description of the employment opportunity (Hippodrome Casino Ltd, 26 March 2014).
Marketers should tread carefully when referencing mental illness in ads to ensure that the reference is not socially irresponsible, or offensive. In some contexts, words such as “mad” or “bonkers” may be used in a way which makes no direct reference to mental health and as such will not cause offence. However, references to mental health must be treated with care. In 2015, the ASA investigated an online ad for a Halloween costume called “Adult Skitzo Costume”, after receiving a complaint that it reinforced negative attitudes about schizophrenia and other mental health problems. On the basis of the ad’s reference to a specific mental health problem and the use of the term “Skitzo”, in conjunction with the image of the costume, the ASA considered that the ad was likely to reinforce negative stereotypes about mental health issues, and the complaint was upheld (Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade 28 January 2015). On the other hand, a “Psycho Clown” was judged acceptable on the basis that ‘psycho’ was a word that was also associated with villainous horror movie characters and, in the context of the ad, was unlikely to be taken as a reference to a person genuinely suffering from mental illness (Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade 16 September 2015).
In 2016, the ASA received a complaint about a banner ad for an online betting company, which stated “SAVE YOURSELF” alongside a silhouette of a man hanging from a rope by his neck. The ASA upheld the complaint, and considered that the ad was socially irresponsible and likely to cause serious offence, in particular to those affected by suicide, mental health conditions or gambling problems (FanBet, 02 March 2016).
The ASA has tended to allow charities a little more leeway than commercial companies when using material which might otherwise be considered offensive, in order to publicise their cause. A hard-hitting Disability Rights Commission poster, which featured a disabled worker alongside text that stated “I’M GOOD FOR NOTHING. Only 17% of people with learning disabilities are in paid work”, was judged unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence in the context of a campaign intended to highlight the reality of life for people with disabilities and to challenge misconceptions (Disability Rights Commission, 19 April 2006). Charities and good causes that work with disabilities are likely to be given greater leeway when portraying those with disabilities in their ads.