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 way in which marketing communications are targeted can have a significant bearing on their acceptability under the CAP Code. Targeting is especially important, of course, when considering matters of taste and decency because the likelihood of an ad causing offence is inextricably linked to the attitudes of the people who see it. In 2000, an ad showing a naked image of Sophie Dahl led to complaints that the ad was offensive. The ASA upheld complaints received about a poster but did not uphold complaints about the same ad when it appeared in women’s glossy magazines, because the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence to the latter’s readers (Yves Saint Laurent Beaute, 10 January 2001).

That principle does not solely apply to ads placed in different media: the differing readerships of different titles could be critical. The ASA considered that a Diesel ad with an image of a naked man, seen from the rear and with three pairs of women’s legs straddling his body, was unlikely to offend readers of Elle Magazine but did breach the Code when placed in the Sunday Times Style Magazine, which the ASA considered was more likely to be seen by children (Diesel (London Ltd), 8 March 2006).

Marketers that have taken care in the targeting of ads that might be considered unsuitable for children will be less likely to breach the Code. In 2006, the ASA received complaints challenging whether an internet banner ad for the ITV4 programme ‘Wanted’ was suitable for viewing by children. Viewers of the ad heard a gunshot and saw a bullet wound appear on a photograph of a man’s head; his eyes closed and blood trickled down his face. The ASA did not uphold the complaints, partly because the images were not considered to be overly gruesome but also because the ASA considered that the ad had been targeted at adults because the advertisers had placed the ads on websites (NME, Independent and Yahoo!) whose users were predominantly adult men (ITV t/a ITV4, 22 March 2006).

Marketers should also pay particular attention to the age of the potential audience of their ads - particularly in mediums that have different methods of serving ads or are likely to reach a diverse demographic - as this is likely to be an important factor in determining whether an ad has been appropriately targeted. An ad for a computer game that featured weapons, explosions, zombies and a thumbless hand, and was shown on digital screens at a London train station, was considered problematic as it was ruled irresponsible to place the ad in an untargeted medium where it could be seen by children (Valve Corporation, April 2010). Similarly, a complaint was made about an ad for an action film called “Abduction” that was shown on Youtube. It appeared before content called “The Duck Song” and was therefore seen by the complainants two year old child. In light of the fact that the trailer contained action sequences that involved shooting, vehicle chases, punching, a couple kissing and a man who kicked his way through a glass window, and that the content had been targeted in such a way that it was visible to all Youtube users, not just to those logged into an account, the ASA considered the ad was inappropriately targeted and the complaint was upheld. Another ad that served violent and gory content to Youtube users who were not signed into an account also had complaints upheld on the grounds that it was not appropriately targeted (Zenimax Europe Ltd, September 2013).

Marketers should bear in mind that some products are far more likely to offend than others and in light of this the advertising of such products should be carefully targeted. A direct mailing, for a sexual enhancement spray, was headed "At last, an effective solution to erection problems! Get an immediate, hard erection - guaranteed! Below was an image of a naked woman, lying on her front and looking up at the camera. A complaint was made that claimed the unsolicited ad was offensive because of its sexual content. Since the ASA judged the sexual content of the ad was likely to offend, and it had not been targeted, the complaint was upheld (Life Healthcare t/a Regal Health, September 2012).

Marketers should be mindful that the unsuitable targeting of ads for certain products is an automatic breach of the Code.  For example, mediums where more than 25% of the audience is comprised of a protected age group may not be used to advertise certain products (under-18s - alcohol, electronic cigarettes and gambling; under-16s - lotteries, food and soft drink products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS)).

See also; 'Children: Targeting', 'Food: HFSS Placement', 'Alcohol: The young'.

Updated 29 June 2017

Related Rulings

Zenimax Europe Ltd, September 2013

Life Healthcare t/a Regal Health, September 2012

Lions Gate UK Ltd, 18 January 2012

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