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.
Marketing communications must contain nothing that is likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour (Rule 4.4). Approaches that feature violent scenarios or imagery, especially if its use is gratuitous, could be considered irresponsible and likely to condone violent behaviour.
Graphic depictions or implications of violence should be avoided, especially in untargeted media such as posters. In 2007, the ASA upheld complaints that two fashion ads which appeared in the national press were irresponsible and offensive because they glamorised violence (Dolce & Gabbana, 10 January 2007). One ad showed two men with knives threatening a third man sitting on a chair while a fourth man was lying on the floor with a wound to his forehead. The other ad featured two men supporting a woman who was holding a knife and had a wound on her chest. The ads generated over 200 complaints, some of which cited a recent knife amnesty as a particular reason for the ads’ unacceptability. Although the ads were stylised and theatrical, the ASA upheld the complaints that the ads glorified knife-related violence, were socially irresponsible and were offensive.
Marketers who depict guns should take great care to ensure that the approach is suitable both for the product being advertised and the intended audience. In 2010 the ASA upheld complaints about an ad in a music magazine featuring an image of a man holding a gun to the head of another, agreeing that it was likely to be seen as glamorising and condoning real violence (Fly53 Ltd, 27 January 2010). If guns are being featured to promote safety, the marketing communication must have a clear unambiguous safety message (The Penguin Group, November 2000). See Weapons: General for further guidance.
More subtle images are less likely to be problematic. In 2013 the ASA chose not to uphold complaints about a horror film poster, noting that while some might find it distasteful it did not show images of interpersonal violence, and did not show the depicted chainsaw being used as a weapon (Lions Gate UK Ltd, 24 April 2013.) A humorous approach may, in some cases, soften the tone of an ad. A 2011 ad for clothing showed a woman lying at the foot of a staircase, with a blood stain on the floor near her head. A man holding a heavy candlestick was standing next to her and text below him stated “Professor Plum with the candlestick in the hall?” The ASA considered that readers would clearly associate the image with the well-known board game Cluedo and would see the image as a darkly humorous representation of said game. In light of this it concluded that the ad was unlikely to cause offence or condone violence (Harrods Ltd, 2 February 2011).
Marketers might have more leeway if the violence depicted is relevant to the product, for example, if it reflects the content of a book, film or computer game. But relevance is not always a ‘get out of jail’ card. See “Video games and films” for further guidance on advertising these products.
Marketers should be mindful that the public’s sensitivity can shift over time and with current events. Complainants objecting to the poster featuring gun crime in 2007 cited the shooting of an 11 year old shortly before the ads appeared (Entertainment Film Distributors Ltd, 21 November 2007).