We’ve published 2014’s top ten most complained about ads. Our list reveals that the top three ads are also the most complained about ads ever.

2014 was the year social media

came into its own in making it

easier than ever to lodge

complaints en masse.

Guy Parker, ASA Chief Executive

Topping the list is Paddy Power’s Oscar Pistorius ad with 5,525 complaints. The seriousness of the ad’s content, making light of a murder trial and the death of a woman, prompted us to suspend the ad immediately. The fact that the three most complained about ads ever have appeared in 2014 reflects the rise of social media, which has allowed members of the public to voice and co-ordinate their concerns about ads. Many of the complaints about the Paddy Power ad and the third most-complained about ad (The Sun’s ‘Win a Date with a Page 3 Model’) were coordinated via the online petition site, change.org.

While most of the ads that prompt high numbers of complaints do so on the grounds of offence, most of the hundreds of millions of ads that appear each year don’t raise concern. Where they do, it’s mostly in relation to misleading claims, which make up around 75% of all cases we receive.

A big theme of 2014 was the rise of copycat websites, which mislead people by appearing to be official government websites. Two such cases appear in our list of the most complained about ads of the year. In response, we conducted consumer research and worked with Government and search engine providers, to take firm action to reduce the number of misleading ads in this area.

Guy Parker, ASA Chief Executive, said: “2014 was the year social media came into its own in making it easier than ever to lodge complaints en masse. While some ads will inevitably split opinion, as the diverse nature of complaints we received shows, last year underlined the importance of our work in cracking down on misleading ads, including copycat websites, that are simply unfair to consumers.”

2014’s ten most complained about ads are:

1. Paddy Power plc

5,525 complaints – Upheld

We banned this national press ad that offered incentives to bet on the outcome of Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial. We upheld complaints that the ad caused serious offence by trivialising the issues surrounding a murder trial, the death of a woman and disability. We also concluded that the approach brought advertising into disrepute.

Read the Paddy Power ruling

2. Booking.com BV

1,768 complaints – Not upheld (this figure relates to 2014 complaints only, more complaints were received in 2015).

This TV and cinema ad prompted complaints that the ad was offensive and encouraged bad language amongst children by using the word "booking" in place of a swear word. We did not uphold the complaints, judging that it was a light hearted play on words that couldn’t be mistaken for an actual swear word. We also ruled that it was unlikely to encourage swearing amongst children; any children that did pick up on the joke were unlikely to have learned bad language through the ad itself.

Read the Booking.com ruling

3. News UK & Ireland Ltd t/a The Sun

1,711 complaints – Upheld

An email sent to subscribers of the Sun’s Dream Team fantasy football competition featured a prize draw to win a date with a Page 3 model. Winners were also able to pick their date. The complaints, many of which were submitted as part of a campaign led by SumOfUs.org, believed the ad was sexist and objectified women. We upheld the complaints that the email was offensive and irresponsible for presenting women as objects to be won.

Read The Sun ruling

4. J Sainsbury plc in association with The Royal British Legion

823 complaints – Not upheld

Sainsbury’s Christmas TV ad showed a story based on the 1914 Christmas Day truce during the First World War. Most of the complainants objected to the use of an event from the First World War to advertise a supermarket. While acknowledging that some found the ad to be in poor taste, we did not judge the ad to be offensive and in breach of the Code.

5. The Save the Children Fund

614 complaints – Not upheld

This TV and video-on-demand ad featured a women giving birth to a baby with the help of a midwife and prompted complaints that the scenes were offensive, distressing and inappropriately scheduled. We did not uphold the complaints and agreed that the ad’s post 9 pm scheduling restriction appropriately reduced the risk of younger viewers seeing the ads and causing distress.

Read The Save the Children Fund ruling

6. Waitrose Ltd

267 complaints – Resolved

A TV and cinema ad claimed ‘Everyone who works at Waitrose owns Waitrose’ prompted complaints that it was misleading because they understood that some services, like cleaning, were outsourced. When we approached Waitrose with the complainants’ challenges, they agreed to amend the ad. We closed the case because the concerns were resolved without the need for full investigation.

7. Must Have Ltd t/a VIP Electronic Cigarettes

199 complaints - Upheld

We received complaints that two VIP e-cigarette TV ads glamorised and promoted the use of tobacco products. We did not uphold the complaints about glamourisation, but did consider the ads depicted the products being exhaled in a way that created a strong association with traditional tobacco smoking.

Read the Must Have ruling

8. TADServices Ltd t/a uk-passport.net

188 complaints – Sector investigation

We received complaints that the site gave a false impression of being an official government site. The issues raised were used to inform a sector-wide investigation into so-called ‘copycat websites’. The work included commissioning consumer research and taking action across the sector to remove misleading claims, imagery and emblems. It also involved supporting the Government awareness campaign #StartAtGOVUK, which warns those looking for official services to start at GOV.UK to avoid misleading websites.

9. Unilever UK Ltd

183 complaints - Not upheld

This animated TV and YouTube ad for Flora Buttery showed two children making breakfast in bed for their parents and walking in on their parents ‘wrestling’. We received complaints that the ad was offensive and unsuitable for children to see. While we acknowledged that while the ad was suggestive, it did not contain any sexually graphic or distressing scenes, and so was unlikely to cause undue fear or distress to young viewers.

10. IQ Channels Ltd t/a passport-uk.co.uk

177 complaints – Sector investigation

We received complaints that passport-uk.co.uk, which offers passport renewal services, misleadingly implied it was a Government site and that its terms and conditions were not clearly available. See 8. TAD Services for action.

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