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 ASA often receives complaints concerning violent or sexual content in ads. Although not exclusive to the sector, many of the complaints are about images used to advertise video games and films. Some ads are simply badly judged but mainly the problem comes when visuals appear in untargeted or poorly targeted media (for example posters or unrestricted internet sites). Marketers should be mindful of where ads with a sexual or violent content appear and note that posters, especially those outside or close to schools might be considered particularly unsuitable.The acceptability of ads is likely to depend on a number of factors, including the media in which they appear. The ASA did not uphold complaints about an internet banner ad, for a film, containing a blood-splattered image of a woman hanging upside down and the text "Don't look here. It's torture" because it had appeared on a website targeted at an adult audience, who would understand that the ad reflected the content of the film (Sony Pictures Releasing UK, 10 October 2007). When deciding not to uphold complaints against a trailer for the video game Hitman: Absolution, the ASA took account of the fact that the material was age-restricted to website users who were 18 or over and accessed via a Facebook page or YouTube channel which were specifically about the Hitman game (Square Enix Ltd, 26 September 2012).
In untargeted media advertisers should be careful to ensure any violent imagery, even when reflective of the content of the film/game, is not excessive or graphic. In 2013 the ASA chose not to uphold a complaint about a video game poster that featured a man holding a gun in each hand, with two people shown hanging upside down from a tree in the background. It considered that the absence of graphic violence meant that the image was unlikely to cause fear or distress to adults or children (Ubisoft Ltd, 9 January 2013). However an ad for a zombie film, shown before a trailer for PG film, was deemed too graphic too be shown in untargeted media ( Entertainment One UK ltd , 19 December 2012).
It’s not just films and video games advertising that generate complaints. In 2006, the ASA found that Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson had such cultural credibility, especially among young people, that his association with gang culture and criminal behaviour was likely to be seen as glamorising and condoning the possession and use of guns. Marketers should be careful when showing violence if children are likely to interpret it as being aspirational, a way of gaining respect, money or solving problems (Universal Music Group, 4 January 2006). To help avoid this, marketers should avoid linking the images in an ad with the viewer or the viewer’s life. Using stills that are obviously fictional or fantasy could be a way of avoiding blurring the line between the viewer’s reality and the content of the film or game, provided that the stills abide by the Code.
Images relevant to the product do not negate the need for both advertisers and media owners to be mindful of public sensitivities. The ASA upheld complaints about a campaign, for a computer game, that showed a crying woman, gagged and obviously the victim of violence. The ads included the claim “Grittier and nastier in tone than anything you’ve seen before, the violence here is visceral, brutal and very, very real”. Although the ads portrayed a relevant scene from the game, the ASA concluded that the campaign was socially irresponsible, offensive, distressing and guilty of condoning and glorifying violence (Eidos Interactive Ltd, 9 April 2008). Marketers should remember that in some cases the level of violence shown will be unacceptable regardless of any targeting or link to content.
Marketers who depict weapons should take great care to ensure that the approach is suitable both for the product being advertised and the intended audience. Marketers should not imply that weapons are an everyday part of life or can solve problems (Universal Music Group, 4 January 2006). As a general rule, marketers should avoid depicting weapons that are pointing directly or aggressively at the reader because such images can be threatening and can cause unnecessary fear and distress. In rejecting complaints about a poster for the TV series “Dexter” the ASA took into account the fact that the knife was not being used in a threatening manner, was not aimed at another character or reader and was not bloodstained. (Fox International Channels UK Ltd, 9 January 2008). But, even if a weapon is shown pointing away from the reader, advertisements featuring prominent shots of guns or guns being brandished in an aggressive manner are likely to be unacceptable (Entertainment Film Distributors Ltd, 21 November 2007).
Marketers need to be careful about the inclusion of sexual imagery or references to sex in ads. Many sexual images are likely to be considered inappropriate if seen by youngsters. Again, targeting is key; marketers can reflect the sexual content of films and games in advertising as long as it is appropriate for the target audience. The ASA upheld a complaint about an internet display ad that contained claims like “He goes down on you like six times a week…” and “[sometimes I wish that she enjoyed…] getting it in the tush”. Because it considered the sexual themes were likely to offend some users and were unsuitable for children, and because Yahoo! (on whose homepage the ad appeared) had not protected children from seeing the ad, the ASA upheld the complaint (Paramount Pictures UK, 8 July 2009).
To help marketers of films and video games, CAP has issued guidance which is available in our Help Notes section.
See also ‘Weapons: General’, ‘Violence and Anti-social Behaviour’, ‘Fear & Distress’, ‘Sexual Violence’, ‘Drugs’, ‘Social responsibility’.