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 age in advertising will not cause offence.

Ads should not depict people in an adverse or offensive way, when the focus in on their age, and marketers should not mock, humiliate or degrade the elderly. An ad which makes general comments about people of a certain age being incapable at certain tasks, for example, may be problematic.

The ASA has upheld a complaint about a poster which featured an elderly white woman sitting on a sofa alongside a young black man. The man had his arms around the woman and his eyes were closed, whilst the woman held an electronic cigarette and was looking directly at the camera. Text alongside the image stated "NO TOBACCO. NO TABOO". The ASA considered that consumers were likely to interpret the ad to mean that smoking e-cigarettes was not a taboo issue and that in contrast, a relationship between an older woman and a younger man, and a couple of different races, was something that was unusual or socially unacceptable. Because of that, the ASA concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of race and age (Nicofresh Ltd, 6 August 2014).

However, this does not mean that all references to age will be problematic and using light hearted jokes in advertising can be acceptable providing they are not likely to cause serious, or widespread offence. And an ad for a vintage clothing shop that showed an elderly woman about to cross a road with the text "Silk Dress Coming Soon” was considered acceptable. The ASA concluded that, although the implication was that the dress would be available because the woman might die soon, readers would consider the ad humorous, albeit morbid. Moreover, because the ad did not make fun of infirmity, lack of mobility or illness and did not associate any particular negative characteristics or stereotypes with elderly people, it concluded the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence (Shock & Soul, 10 March 2010).

As with all questions of offence, targeting is key. The ASA received a complaint about an ad that stated "Classic FM's version of speed dating" above a picture of three elderly people in a nursing home; two were sitting down asleep and one was being escorted by two nurses. Text continued "69% of Classic FM listeners are aged 55 or over* They might be old, but Classic FM listeners still need someone to go to the bingo with …”. Because it appeared in trade press, the ASA considered the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence (Wireless Group plc, 18 May 2005).

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