In a competitive marketplace advertisers use a variety of techniques to grab our attention and stand out from the crowd. Some might use catchy jingles, slapstick humour or state of the art graphics to help make their campaigns memorable.

Although not a commonly used technique, some advertisers choose to use bolder language – often through a play on words or, more rarely, a direct profanity. While the Advertising Codes do not prohibit swearing, it’s important to remember that what might be considered funny or offensive can vary depending on an ad’s wording, particularly the tone and context in which it’s used as well as the place it appears.

So what are the rules in this area and where do we draw the line for ads that use swearwords? In simple terms, ads must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Significantly however, the rules also recognise that ads may be distasteful without necessarily being a problem.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that where there is a suggestion of bad language in an ad, it’s likely to prompt complaints from consumers who have found the ad offensive. One of the main concerns we receive is whether these ads are suitable for children to see or hear. A recent example of this is the play on words in a travel website ad, which complainants thought could encourage swearing amongst children. We considered the ad didn’t break the rules because it didn’t use any explicit language.

It’s not just whether an advertiser has fun with puns or uses a double entendre, the context of an ad and the name of the product itself might also be considered offensive. In 2013 we upheld complaints about a sofa company’s ad. The ad prominently featured a slogan, which when spoken sounded like a swearword.

When we respond to complaints about swearing in ads, we have to carefully consider whether an ad is likely to offend against prevailing standards in society, part of which includes assessing whether an ad is inappropriate or harmful to children, for instance by encouraging anti-social behaviour.

Being creative and pushing the boundaries with the use of language in an ad isn’t out of the question. Used in context and targeted carefully, strong language doesn’t automatically mean an ad breaks the rules. A case in point is an email promotion by a clothing company, which advised customers to “SORT OUT YOUR SH!T…” We found that it didn’t break the rules because it was sent to the company’s core demographic of students and young adults who were unlikely to be offended.

We’re not here to stifle creativity or to stop advertisers being irreverent but we urge them to consider public sensitivities before using language that might not be to everyone’s taste.

Read some relevant ASA rulings in this area [warning, some rulings contain strong language]:

Bedworld (North) Ltd

Spotify Ltd

The Sofa King Ltd


Read CAP guidance on using swearing in ads.

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