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.

Although they only account for a small part of the ASA’s work, complaints about taste and decency are often the most high profile. Upheld decisions can result in widespread adverse publicity for the company concerned and marketers can be required to have posters pre-vetted by CAP’s Copy Advice team for two years if they publish an offensive poster.

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. Links to CAP’s specific guidance on these categories along with a number of others can be found at the bottom of this article. Compliance with this rule is judged based on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards.


Marketers who wish to refer to current or emotive news stories in their marketing should take particular care over how such stories are used, if they are to avoid accusations of exploitation or shock tactics (Paddy Power plc, 19 March 2014 and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation t/a PETA, 3 February 2010).

Medium and audience

When determining whether an ad is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, the ASA will take into account the medium in which the ad has appeared. What is acceptable in magazines with a broad-minded and relevant audience might not be acceptable on posters that are untargeted. Marketers can go some way towards avoiding causing serious or widespread offence by ensuring that they target ads appropriately. In 2013, the ASA held that, whilst an ad which contained references to masturbation was unlikely to have caused serious or widespread offence to the advertiser’s intended audience of young males who were interested in sports, it had not been targeted precisely enough and was likely to cause offence to a wider audience (My Goodness Ltd, 20 November 2013).

Marketers should be mindful that, although careful targeting can help to avoid causing offence, some ads are unlikely to be acceptable in any media.

See Targeting


Rule 4.1 recognises that some people might be offended by the product being advertised, irrespective of the nature of the ad itself. The Code allows for products such as sanitary products, condoms and erotic literature to be advertised but marketers should be aware that the nature of the product might generate complaints. In 2012 the ASA held that whilst some consumers would find posters for condoms distasteful because of the references to sex and sexual activity, the ads were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence, because the images used were not sexually explicit and the overall tone of the ads was not provocative (Ansell (U.K.) Ltd, 2 May 2012).

Charity advertising

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. In 2012, the ASA held that a reference to child abuse in a mailing had been adequately balanced by the worthwhile purpose of raising awareness of it (National Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 21 March 2012).

It can be difficult to know in advance whether an ad is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, but CAP’s Copy Advice team are always happy to provide advice on whether an ad is likely to breach the Code.

See Offence: Sexual orientation, Offence: Use of stereotypes, Offence: Sex, Offence: Elderly, Offence: Racism, Offence: Disability, Offence: Religion, Offence: Death, Offence: Sexism, Contraceptives: Offence, Offence: Nudity and Offence: Language.

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