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.
Religion and belief are potentially extremely sensitive subjects. References to religion in marketing communications, even humorous ones, have the capacity to cause serious offence. Marketers should ensure that they consider carefully the tone used and, if necessary, research the likelihood of marketing communications causing serious or widespread offence to followers of the faiths concerned.
Gentle humour may be acceptable when reflecting mainstream culture if religios references have passed into mainstream culture more generally. , in 2014 the ASA received complaints that a Christmas themed ad referring to "all our stupid songs" was likely to cause offence because it mocked carol singing, an element of Christian worship. The ASA did not uphold the complaints, noting that the activity was part of British Christmas tradition, followed by both Christians and non-Christians alike (Kentucky Fried Chicken (Great Britain) Ltd, 5 March 2014).
It is quite common for the ASA to receive complaints about religious beliefs being depicted in a humorous way in ads during important events in religious calendars. For example. Christian imagery in and around Christmas and Easter etc. The ASA chose not to uphold complaints about fashion ads seen around Christmas that showed a man giving a woman a Mulberry handbag as a gift in scenes reminiscent of the Christmas Nativity story. It considered most viewers would understand it as a light hearted take on the Nativity story, intended to poke fun at the effect of consumerism on Christmas rather than mocking or denigrating Christian belief (Mulberry Company (Sales) Ltd, 23 December 2015). In contrast, an ad for a sex toy sold around Easter 2017 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).
The use of religious imagery or language may be considered acceptable, provided it is not mocking or disrespectful. A complaint about an ad for an album which featured an image reminiscent of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a revered icon of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Christian faith, with the face of a snarling dog was not upheld, because the image was not considered mocking or denegratory towards the Madonna or the Christian faith in general (SharpTone Records, 4 July 2018). In contrast, an ad which featured an image of a crucifixion, with cartoon style imagery of blood dripping from a hand pierced by a nail alongside the text “nailed on bonus”, “dearly departed JC” and “sacrilecious [sic] bonus” was considered likely to cause offence, particularly to those of the Christian faith to whom the image would have a particularly strong resonance (Boylesports Enterprise, 18 May 2016).
Using religious imagery to advertise products or themes contrary to central or sensitive religious beliefs is likely to be problematic. In 2006, the ASA considered that changing The Last Supper to show Jesus in a casino and his apostles playing roulette was likely to offend (Paddy Power, 11 January 2006). Another good example of inappropriate usage was an ad, placed in the run up to Christmas, for the morning-after pill. It was headlined “Immaculate Contraception?” and generated over 180 complaints by mis-using a fundamental Catholic belief (Schering Health Care Ltd, 22 December 2004).
Whilst it is acceptable to present beliefs and challenge others in advertising, this should not be done in a way which could ridicule or demean any religions or beliefs, and objective claims made in relation to religion or belief must not mislead. A national press ad for the Gay Police Association highlighted homophobic incidents where the sole or primary motivating factor was the religious belief of the perpetrator, and stated "in the name of the father", showing a photograph of a Bible next to a pool of blood. Complainants believed the ad implied that Christians were the perpetrators of the reported incidents and that all Christians shared these views. The ASA agreed that this message was misleading, and was also likely to offend Christian readers on these grounds (Gay Police Association, 18 October 2006).
Although religious offence accounts for few complaints to the ASA, the offence caused can be very serious. CAP has issued a Help Note on Religious Offence, which covers these topics:
- The sacred: aspects of religion that are so sacred their depiction is likely to break the Code;
- Christianity and common culture: tolerance that extends to the use of Christian images and words;
- Non-Christian faiths: the need for greater sensitivity towards minority faiths;
- Language: ecclesiastical language and what might or might not offend;
- Sex and Religion: the use of sexualised images;
- Location, context, timing and media: where and when to avoid advertising, for example posters showing nudity close to places of worship;
- Relevance of product;
- Humour: whether humour gets round offence and
- Cause-related advertising: is it acceptable for charities and the like to use religious images to generate interest?