The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has today published the findings of research, conducted on its behalf by Ipsos MORI, into the public’s views on what is harmful and offensive in UK advertising.

Specific rules in the Advertising Codes require the ASA to make judgements based on prevailing standards in society. The qualitative and quantitative research undertaken with the general public, parents, and children will help inform our decision making on matters relating to harm and offence.

Encouragingly, the findings indicate that the ASA is broadly getting it right when it comes to judging where the line should be drawn in terms of inappropriate or harmful ads. However, the research also reveals some unexpected findings, which indicate some public concern about hard-hitting charity and public services ads.

Specifically, most children in the qualitative research spontaneously mentioned charity and public service ads as those that had upset or bothered them or younger siblings recently. Some felt upset by the ads themselves, while others were worried because they wanted to help the cause but were unable to do so. Those ads were also a particular concern for parents.

When it came to harm and offence more generally, other areas of concern spontaneously mentioned by participants were: sexual content and nudity, body image, violent content and gender stereotypes.

In summary, the research reveals that:

  • Overall, participants’ views of ads that had been the subject of complaints were broadly in line with the decisions taken by the ASA
  • One in six adults (16%) said they had been personally offended by an ad or ads in the last twelve months, slightly lower than the proportion (19%) who had been offended when similar ASA research was conducted in 2002
  • Participants felt that the wider media showed stronger harmful and offensive content than advertising
  • Protecting children from potential harm was a key priority for both parents and non-parents alike, rather than just a concern for parents
  • Three in ten children (30%) aged 11-16 surveyed said they had been bothered by an ad in the last 12 months. Sexual, violent and scary content were their main reasons.

In more detail, the research reveals that:

  • Charity and public service ads. Some participants argued that those ads can go too far, using distressing content to make people feel upset or guilty in a way that they considered inappropriate. Some parents felt that some charity ads were targeting their children directly, which then put pressure on them to donate money. Others felt those ads should have more scope to shock because of their worthwhile aims
  • Portrayal of body image. Despite widespread spontaneous concerns about the portrayal of unrealistic body image - seen as both offensive and harmful by many participants, particularly women - only a minority felt that specific examples of those ads should be banned. Instead, advertising generally was seen as contributing to a broader culture where women – and particularly girls – can be made to feel bad about themselves
  • Sexual content and nudity. A few participants had concerns about sexual content and nudity in advertising, particularly where they could see no link between sex and the product being advertised. However, many were not worried by the current level of sexual content and nudity in advertising, describing it as relatively inoffensive compared to other types of media
  • Ads for sex shops and lap dancing clubs. Those were not a spontaneous concern for participants. Most did not find the examples they were shown personally offensive, but views were more divided about whether or not they were harmful to children
  • Ads that depict gender stereotypes. Those were also mentioned spontaneously, with concerns about women being objectified and men being portrayed as stupid or engaging in juvenile behaviour
  • Violent and scary content. Few adults reported having been offended by that in advertising recently. Concerns were more focused on ads for violent films and computer games and their potentially harmful impact on children and young men. Adult participants mentioned public service ads that featured violence or peril and whether they should be part of pre-watershed programming.

Chairman of the ASA, Lord Smith says: “This research is invaluable in giving us the opportunity to listen to what the public thinks on matters of harm and offence in ads. While it is reassuring that we generally seem to be getting things right, we cannot ignore the real concerns that have been raised, particularly around children. We will now reflect on the findings, for example making sure we consider the perspectives of children even more carefully in the future.”

View the ASA Harm and offence report

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