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.
Code rule 4.1 states that "marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation..." (See Offence: General).
Whether the language used in marketing communications is likely to cause serious or widespread offence will depend to the words used, the medium and context in which they appear, and factors such as tone, which might affect how consumers understand the ad. Some words are unlikely to be acceptable to use in marketing communications.
Some factors that the ASA may take into account include: whether the word is in common usage, the general tone and context of the marketing communication, whether the ad is appropriately targeted, and the word's relevance (if any) to the advertised product.
Marketers should carefully consider the language used in marketing communications and target appropriately. Some expletives, such as “fuck”, are very likely to offend, whereas milder words may be acceptable, depending on the context and media in which they appear.
Some words are unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence, even if used in an untargeted medium. The ASA considered that the statement “what the fudge?” was acceptable in untargeted media because, generally, viewers were unlikely to mistake the clearly enunciated word “fudge” for a stronger swearword, and because “what the fudge” was a phrase in its own right (Sky UK Ltd, 06 July 2022). The words “fudging”, “flipping” and “chuffing” have also been considered unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence when used in untargeted media (Green Flag Ltd, 24 November 2021).
Consumer research conducted by the ASA and Ofcom has suggested that some expletives, such as “fuck” and “cunt”, are so likely to offend that they should generally not be used in marketing communications, even if they are relevant to the name of the product. Marketers that include expletives like this must be able to demonstrate that the ads were targeted at an audience that was unlikely to be offended. In 2021, the ASA upheld complaints about ads for novelty goods which featured products with text “COCK HUNGRY WHORE” and “MY SON IS A CUNT HE GETS IT FROM HIS FATHER”. Because the advertiser did not demonstrate that the ads were carefully targeted to an audience which was unlikely to be offended, they breached the Code (Banter Group Ltd, 08 September 2021).
Some language is likely to cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of particular characteristics, such as religion, disability, race, gender, or sexual orientation. This will be unacceptable in any context. The ASA ruled that the word “slut” was likely to cause serious or widespread offence, even when used in reference to a horse supplement named “slut mix”. Because the term “slut” was a well-known negative and derogatory stereotype of women, the ASA considered that consumers were likely to find the word highly offensive, derogatory towards women, and sexist (LeMieux Ltd 27 April 2022).
In 2014, the ASA held that products containing expletives or words likely to cause serious or widespread offence, or allusions to such words, should only appear in marketing communications where a clear and prominent warning had been given to potential viewers first (Firebox.com Ltd, 22 October 2014). Marketers should note that this is only likely to be appropriate in the context of marketing communications with a largely adult audience.
The interpretation of a word can be heavily influenced by the context in which it is used. Words which may be unoffensive in certain contexts are likely to cause offence if they allude to discriminatory or violent language. The ASA has previously upheld complaints about the phrases “Let the Gas Showroom stick something warm in your hearth-hole!” (The Gas Showroom Ltd, 30 August 2006); “Grinding, Banging, Stripping, Spreading, Screwing, Sucking, Swivelling, Vibrating, Pumping … Job Done” (Balloo Hire Centre Ltd, 22 November 2006) and “Poker in the front … Liquor in the rear” (Bet United Ltd, 17 October 2007). See Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Particular care must be taken by marketers to avoid causing offence on the grounds of various characteristics. An ad for a sex toy sold around Easter was considered likely to cause offence on the grounds of religion because it included the double entendre “res-erection” and the text “Sinful Sunday”, playing on the religious prominence of the Easter holiday (Honey Birdette (UK) Ltd, 12 July 2017).
If words which are relevant to a product/service allude to a swear word, this may be acceptable, providing the word will not be easily confused with an offensive word. In an ad for Booking.com, the word ‘booking’ was repeated multiple times in a variety of contexts that each lent themselves to substitution with an expletive. The ASA considered that many viewers would understand the use of 'booking' as word play on the word 'fucking’. However, because the word ‘booking’ was enunciated clearly, was sufficiently distinct so as not to be generally confused with the word 'fucking', and was directly relevant to the advertiser's brand name, it was considered unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence (Booking.com BV, 18 February 2015).
Marketers should only use expletives when targeting the marketing communication at an audience that is unlikely to find the language offensive.
The ASA considered that a TV ad which stated "Ship this bed? You can ship the bed right here at bedworld.net" should have had scheduling restrictions applied to avoid children seeing it. It considered that, although the pun may not have caused serious or widespread offence, younger viewers were unlikely to register the distinction between “ship” and the expletive “shit” (Bedworld (North) Ltd, 08 April 2015).
It will not always be sufficient to target marketing communications exclusively at adults, and certain language is likely to be considered offensive to a general adult audience. Marketing communications should be targeted specifically at those who are unlikely to find the language used offensive, for example, an audience that actively subscribes to content which commonly features the language used. The ASA considered the claim “F**K YOU CO2” which appeared in an outdoor poster, and in a double page spread in The Metro, The Week, and The Economist. The ASA considered that, although the word was partially obscured, it clearly referred to the word “fuck”, which was likely to offend a general audience, and therefore should not have appeared in the poster or The Metro. However, because this reflected language used elsewhere in The Week and The Economist, both of which had to be actively purchased, it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence to the audience of those publications (BrewDog plc, 18 November 2020).
The ASA upheld complaints about a YouTube pre-roll ad which appeared before a Pokémon Undertale video. The ad, which stated “SodaStream. Fuck plastic bottles” was a parody of a scene in the TV programme Game of Thrones that also featured swearing. Although the ad had been served to viewers who were logged into an account registered to a user over 25 and had an interest in the programme, it was not served exclusively to fans of the show. The ASA considered that YouTube viewers would not expect to be served an ad that featured such strong language, regardless of their other interests and concluded that the ad had been irresponsibly targeted (SodaStream Worldwide Trading Company, 03 May 2017).
Even mild swearwords might offend if they are not targeted appropriately. In 2007, the ASA considered complaints about the phrase “WHERE THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU?” and concluded that, whilst it was acceptable in newspapers and targeted media, it should not have appeared in posters, which were likely to be seen by children (Australian Tourist Board t/a Tourism Australia, 28 March 2007).
Words that are not normally considered swearwords might still be offensive, depending on the context in which they are used and how they are targeted. The ASA has upheld complaints about the phrases “Let the Gas Showroom stick something warm in your hearth-hole!” (The Gas Showroom Ltd, 30 August 2006); “Grinding, Banging, Stripping, Spreading, Screwing, Sucking, Swivelling, Vibrating, Pumping … Job Done” (Balloo Hire Centre Ltd, 22 November 2006) and “Poker in the front … Liquor in the rear” (Bet United Ltd, 17 October 2007).
Word play which clearly alludes to offensive language is likely to be considered problematic, unless it is appropriately targeted. The ASA considered that statement “what the cluck” would be interpreted as alluding to the expression “what the fuck?”, and was likely to cause offence to a general audience (KFC, 04 December 2019).
The ASA investigated complaints about ads for Tesco Mobile that used the words “shiitake”, “pistachio”, and “fettucine”. The ads which obviously replaced the expletives “shit” and “piss” with the similar looking or sounding “shitake” and “pistachio” were found to breach the Code on the grounds that they were offensive and inappropriate for display where they could be seen by children. The more obscure choice of the word “fettuccine” to allude to swearing was ruled not to breach the Code (Tesco Mobile Ltd, 11 May 2022).
Complaints about the use of the phrase “The Sofa King - Where the Prices are Sofa King Low!” were also upheld. Although the ad did not make explicit use of an expletive the phrase was likely to be misread as containing a swearword and was therefore likely to cause serious or widespread offence (The Sofa King Ltd, 29 February 2012).
Marketing communications that do not explicitly state full expletives, but obscure part of the word, are still likely to breach the Code if viewers are likely to recognise the word that the ad is referring to, and that word is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Complaints about an untargeted ad which stated “ever thought about f****** working” were upheld by the ASA, which considered that the ads were likely to be seen as referring to a swear word that many would find offensive (Digital Mums Ltd, 03 January 2018). See also “THE END OF THE F*****G WORLD” (Channel Four Television Corporation, 18 December 2019).
Some language which may be considered offensive when used in commercial marketing may be considered unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence when used in charity marketing, where the content has an important charitable message. In 2007, the ASA rejected complaints about a national press campaign to raise awareness of Barnardo’s work. The ad stated “He told his parents to f**k off. He told his foster parents to f**k off. He told fourteen social workers to “f**k off. He told us to f**k off. But we didn’t ….” (Barnardo’s, 22 August 2007). Marketers should ensure that any language used is not gratuitous, and be aware that, even charity ads may need to be targeted away from children or at a a specific audience to avoid causing offence.
Code rule 4.1 sates that "Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule. Marketers are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material". The mere fact that a word might be considered distasteful by some is unlikely to result in action by the ASA. In 2009 it rejected a complaint about the use of the word “guff” because it considered that most readers were likely to find the word humorous, rather than offensive (Britvic Soft Drinks Ltd, 11 November 2009).