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.
The acceptability of language in marketing communications can vary according to the word used, the medium in which it appears and other factors, such as tone, that might affect how consumers view it. Some words are unlikely ever to be acceptable marketing communications, but for others much will depend on the overall impression of the ad.
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, the choice of medium and the likely audience (URB UK Ltd, 10 April 2013) and the word's relevance (if any) to the advertised product. Some Expletives should normally be avoided in any marketing communication.
Marketers should bear in mind that a word’s impact can be heavily influenced by the context in which it is used. For example, the ASA did not investigate complaints when Unilever described Pot Noodle as being “the slag of all snacks” but upheld complaints when the claim changed to “Hurt me you slag”, because it considered the allusion to sexual violence to be unacceptable (Unilever Bestfoods UK Ltd, 28 August 2002). See Sexual and Domestic Violence.
If reference to a swear word is relevant, in the context of the ad, to the products or service being advertised, this is more likely to be acceptable. In an ad for Booking.com the word ‘booking’ was repeated multiple times throughout the in a variety of contexts that each lent themselves to substitution with an expletive, and that many viewers would understand the use of 'booking' as word play on the word 'fucking'. In this case the ASA considered that the voice-over artist enunciated the word clearly and that it was sufficiently distinct so as not to be generally confused with the word 'fucking', and that the word 'booking' was not gratuitous or out of context because it was directly relevant to the advertiser's brand name and the URL they were promoting. Based on this assessment the ASA concluded that although the placement of the word was redolent of the use of expletives, the ad did not expressly use any explicit language and therefore concluded that, although some viewers might find the connotation and word play distasteful, it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence (Booking.com BV, 18 February 2015)
However, even if an ad uses or references swearing where it is relevant to the context, advertisers should still think about targeting, and some uses of language are always likely to be unacceptable.
An ad for Bedworld which stated, "Ship this bed. Ship this bed? You can ship the bed right here at bedworld.net" had used this word play to draw attention to their offer of free shipping, which was evident from the signage in the showroom and the on-screen text at the end of the ad. In this case, the ASA acknowledged that “ship” sounded similar to the expletive "shit" in the ad, but in the context of the ad, considered that viewers would recognise the pun and therefore the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence, however despite this the ASA still felt that this should have been targeted to avoid children seeing it (Bedworld (North) Ltd, 08 April 2015).
In the past, the ASA has judged “bloody”, “shag”, “slag”, “piss”, “pee” and “balls” to be acceptable when targeted appropriately. Marketers are nevertheless urged to take care when using expletives and should note that even mild swearwords might offend in certain circumstances. 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 appear in posters, because they were likely to be seen by children (Australian Tourist Board t/a Tourism Australia, 28 March 2007).
The ASA upheld an ad for SodaStream which appeared on a complainant’s Facebook feed and as a pre-roll ad before a Pokemon Undertale video on YouTube stated “SodaStream. Fuck plastic bottles.” Whilst the ASA acknowledged that the ad was a parody of a scene in the TV programme Game of Thrones, which featured swearing, and that the video had only been served to viewers who were logged into a YouTube account registered to a user of 25 years or over and further targeted toward users with an interest in Game of Thrones, it was not served exclusively to fans of the show. They considered that YouTube viewers would not expect to be served an ad that featured such strong language in this medium, regardless of their other interests and concluded that the ad had been irresponsibly targeted on YouTube (SodaStream Worldwide Trading Company, 03 May 2017).
Expletives to avoid
Consumer research conducted by the ASA and others 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. For the use of such words to be acceptable, marketers will need to be able to demonstrate that ads have been carefully targeted at an audience who are unlikely to be offended by them. In 2013, the ASA ruled that an ad on Amazon.co.uk, for a greetings card with the slogan “YOU'RE A CUNT SORRY, I MEANT TO SAY ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’” had breached the Code, despite acknowledging that, in the context of an online shop, it was more likely that the ad would be seen by adults rather than children (Smellyourmum.com, 20 March 2013).
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 appropriate warning has been given first (Firebox.com Ltd, 22 October 2014). However, marketers should note that this is only likely to be appropriate in the context of marketing communications with a largely adult audience.
Words that are not normally considered swearwords might still be offensive, depending on the context in which they are used. 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).
In 2012, the ASA upheld complaints about the use of the phrase “The Sofa King - Where the Prices are Sofa King Low!” in a regional press ad. The ASA noted the ad did not make explicit use of an expletive but considered that 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). More subtle word play may be acceptable – in 2013 the ASA chose not to uphold complaints about the line “Give a fork about your pork” (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, 22 May 2013).
Similarly, ads that do not explicitly state full expletives, but use symbols to replace some letters, might still breach the Code. In 2012, the ASA held that it was offensive to use the phrase “Valentines fu*k fest” on a leaflet promoting a club night (The Pearl Lounge, 25 April 2012). In 2018, an ad which stated “ever thought about f****** working” appeared in untargeted media was upheld by the ASA who considered the ads were likely to be seen as referring in an untargeted context to a swear word that many would find offensive (Digital Mums Ltd, 03 January 2018).
Charities using strong language may be treated with a little more leniency by the ASA. 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).
The mere fact that a word might be considered vulgar 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).
See Offence: General.