Advertisers sometimes use religious themes and images in their campaigns; they provide a quick and recognisable cultural reference point with which to engage consumers.

With Easter just around the corner we’re highlighting the care advertisers should take to ensure any depictions of or references to religion in their ads avoid causing offence.

There is nothing in the Advertising Codes that prevents advertisers from using religion to promote their products and services. That doesn’t mean, however, that they shouldn’t exercise caution when doing so, particularly when it comes to respecting people’s faith and beliefs.

More often than not, the complaints we receive about the use of religion in ads are on the grounds of harm and offence.

In response to complaints, our role is to consider public sensitivities and prevailing standards and weigh up on balance whether an ad has used religion in a way that has crossed a line in being offensive or inappropriate. It’s no easy task.

The Codes emphasise the care that advertisers should take to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Significantly, however, the Code also states that an ad may be distasteful without it actually breaking the rules.

As a general rule of thumb, advertisers should avoid using images or symbols central to a faith particularly if it’s to promote something that runs contrary to a belief or practice (such as alcohol or gambling products). Anything that appears to mock a religious belief is also likely to be considered offensive.

Incidental references to religion and light-hearted use of humour are, however, likely to be acceptable. The use of humour is an approach that requires advertisers to tread carefully.

So, while religion is certainly not off limits when it comes to advertising, advertisers are urged to exercise common sense and restraint in how they depict it. Doing so can help avoid causing offence, prompting complaints and a lengthy sermon from the ASA.

Read CAP guidance on using religion in ads

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