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.

Marketers should be aware of the potential to cause serious or widespread offence when referring to different races, cultures, nationalities or ethnic groups. Light-hearted ads might be acceptable but even mild humour revolving around racial stereotypes has the potential to seriously offend. Marketers should therefore consider carefully the likely acceptability of their intended approach. The tone of the marketing communication is extremely important: aggressive, confrontational or non-humorous approaches are likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Marcoms seen to condone violence or intolerance towards an ethnic group could breach the Code by causing offence, being socially irresponsible or by provoking or condoning violence and anti-social behaviour.

Generalisations that do not mention specific nationalities or racial groups can offend. The ASA upheld complaints about a business fax that was headlined “Asylum Seekers” and stated “Are the French Authorities doing enough to stop the 200,000 illegals entering the UK every year …?” It considered that, because the figures were unsubstantiated, the fax implied all asylum seekers were illegal and was likely to be interpreted as racist (21st Century Faxes Ltd, 16 January 2002). But, in 2007, the ASA rejected an ad that claimed “A migrant a minute is entering Britain … Without a debate or vote in Parliament, our elected MPs have handed control of our borders to the European Union, allowing unlimited immigration into Britain from EU Countries. 88% of you, the people, want a vote on getting your borders back. Write to your MP and demand a referendum NOW …”. The ASA noted the ad did not mention race and was not inflammatory in tone. It considered that readers would understand that the advertiser was merely expressing an opinion (The Speak Out Campaign Ltd, 24 October 2007). More recently, the ASA investigated a Home Office ad that stated "In the UK illegally?...GO HOME OR FACE ARREST". Complainants objected that the poster, and in particular the phrase "GO HOME", was offensive and distressing, because it was reminiscent of slogans used by racist groups to attack immigrants in the past. The ASA did not uphold the complaints, considering that in context, the claim would be interpreted as a message regarding the immigration status of those in the country illegally, which was not related to their race or ethnicity (Home Office, 9 October 2013).

In 2009 the ASA received complaints about an ad for a dating website that showed a woman wearing a low-cut top and holding a pint of beer. Text stated "What's more, she's Jewish.” The complainants objected that the tagline was racist and therefore offensive. The ASA rejected the complaints, noting that the website was specifically designed for single Jewish people. It considered most consumers would see the ad as a tongue in cheek comment about perceptions of single Jewish women and that it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or be seen as racist (Spark Networks Ltd, 12 August 2009). Light-hearted humorous approaches are often acceptable but sometimes the impact is hard to predict and marketers can get it very wrong. The ASA received and rejected a complaint about an ad that claimed “The Irish Strippers will not be performing due to the hot weather” (The Lord Napier, 24 August 2005) but received over 500 complaints about a TV and cinema campaign for a chewing gum. The campaign, which used a stereotype of a black Caribbean man talking in dub poetry, was found to humiliate, insult and depict black or Caribbean people in a negative way (Cadbury Trebor Bassett Services Ltd, 28 March 2007). A complaint was received about a Twining teas television ad that the complainant felt portrayed a negative racial stereotype of a black man as sexually promiscuous and there to provide sexual services for white women. The ASA did not uphold this complaint as although it acknowledged the innuendo featured was mildly sexual, it did not consider that it was reliant on the young man’s ethnic origins or a racial stereotype and was therefore deemed not to be offensive in the manner implied (R Twining, 26th March 2008).

Non-commercial bodies should pay as much attention to the depiction of race in their advertisements as commercial marketers. A Metropolitan Police recruitment advertisement that complainants thought implied black people were less interested than white people in law enforcement and crime prevention was judged by the ASA to be unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence; the ASA concluded that the choice of people used in the advertisements was not racist (Metropolitan Police, 28 March 2001). The ASA did, however, uphold complaints about a Commission for Racial Equality campaign that used a controversial way to address complacency about racism; the ASA ruled that, the marketers’ intentions notwithstanding, the teaser posters were likely to cause serious or widespread offence (Commission for Racial Equality, November 1998).

Marketers should remember that society’s tolerance changes over time and can sometimes be influenced by events outside their control, such as current affairs.

See ‘Offence: Use of Stereotypes’, and 'Social Responsibility'.


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