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.

Rule 4.1 states that marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Marketers must not unfairly portray or refer to anyone in an adverse or offensive way unless that person has given the marketer written permission to allow it (Rule 6.1), should be mindful if advertising a product or service or making a claim that is inconsistent with the position or views of the person featured (Rule 6.1) and should take extra care to avoid causing offence if featuring someone who is dead (Rule 4.3). When designing marketing communications that feature individuals, marketers should take care to ensure that the content will not offend those featured or readers generally.

The use of humour is often (but not always) a way to ensure that ads are not offensive. An ad for pizzas that offered “all the aromas of the fragrant Tuscan hills without so much as a sniff of the Blairs” was considered a light-hearted play on the Blairs’ liking for Tuscany. It was considered unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or denigrate the couple.

The use of cartoons can also be acceptable. An ad that showed caricatures of Jeffrey Archer and Tony Blair under the headline “What’s richer than Jeffrey Archer and smoother than Tony Blair?” generated complaints that it was offensive to describe Tony Blair as ‘smooth’. The ASA considered the ad was not insulting or offensive.

Featuring people in ways that perhaps they might not want to be featured is not necessarily a reason for the ASA to uphold complaints. For example, the ASA rejected complaints about an ad that featured a photo of Major Ingram, who was convicted of fraud (easyJet Airline Co Ltd, 8 October 2003) and Peter Mandelson, who admitted to the press that he could not remember the details of a political incident (Serversys Ltd, 16 May 2001).

In 2008, the ASA rejected a complaint about an ad, for a dating service, that appeared on the complainant’s Facebook page. The ad stated “22 and still single? Why not meet some single girls on Dating Direct, UK’s most popular dating site”. The complainant was offended that his personal details had been used for marketing purposes but the ASA took no action.

As always, the use of humour could backfire so marketers are advised to exercise a cautious approach particularly if the message expressed in the ad is or could be contrary to those of the person featured in the ad or portray an individual in an otherwise adverse way. The most complained about ad in the history of the ASA showed the Pope wearing a hard hat and the claim “the eleventh commandment – thou shalt wear a condom”. The ASA considered that the message of the advertisement was contrary to Catholic philosophy on birth control and that the portrayal of the Pope in that context was degrading and would cause both serious and widespread offence. It upheld all 1191 complaints.

Finally, marketers should ensure that they do not denigrate those who feature in their marketing communications by any other means. The ASA rejected complaints about a spoof business card for a handyman called Steve Greenall. The complainant, an IT consultant, objected that the use of his name, along with the claims “unreliable, undependable, unobtainable” was offensive and damaging to his reputation. The ASA considered that, because the claims would not form part of a real business card and because the complainant was in a completely different sphere of business, the ad was acceptable.

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