In a competitive marketplace, there can be a fine line between creatively drawing attention to your product or service and inadvertently causing harm and offence.

The Code requires that ads must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence and that particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age.

Ads must also not cause fear or distress, unless there is a clearly justifiable reason to do so. It is also worth noting that even if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive and ads should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society.

Harm and offence and outdoor marketing

If you are using outdoor campaigns, you should always consider not just whether the content of the ad contains material that could be deemed offensive but also, whether it is suitable to be placed where it will be seen by children.

Of course, judging whether an ad has crossed the line on these grounds is ultimately a matter of interpretation and it can come down to small margins. For instance, a poster for a horror film by Twentieth Century Fox featured a smiling clown doll with the text “They know what scares you” was judged by the ASA as unlikely to cause fear and distress particularly in the context of a horror movie. They also concluded it wasn’t irresponsibly targeted in outdoor media.

But the ASA took a different view when responding to concerns about outdoor ads for an online classified ad service by W3. Aside from the fact that the ad objectified women and was likely to cause serious or widespread offence; Crucially, even though they hadn’t been placed near schools, the ASA also concluded it was socially irresponsible to place the ads in outdoor media because they would be seen by children.

Harm and offence and children

The protection of children doesn’t just apply to ads appearing in outdoor media. Even if an ad is placed in a medium where the image will be viewed by an adult audience, advertisers should be careful not to present images that will offend, especially if they could potentially be seen to sexualise children. The ASA considered the youthful appearance of a model in conjunction with her pose in ad by Prada Spa for Miu Miu clothing could present a child in a sexualised way and was therefore likely to cause offence and was irresponsible

Harm and offence and social media

Medium and audience are also important issues to consider in online media. Advertisers should carefully consider whether material is suitable for all viewers. Earlier this year, the ASA ruled that an online video ad for pitch hire on the Charlton Athletic YouTube channel, which featured CCTV style footage of a male and female engaged in sexual activity, wasn’t offensive in terms of it being likely to be seen as sexist. However, given that it was on the advertisers own YouTube channel and could be seen by children, the ASA concluded that the ad was harmful because it had been irresponsibly targeted.

This position has also been reinforced by other ASA rulings. The ASA investigated a Giff Gaff ad in terms of both content and targeting. It found that the ad was unlikely to cause widespread fear and distress or cause harm in terms of content. However, even though the advertiser had taken steps to utilise YouTube targeting filters, the ASA considered that the ad had been irresponsibly targeted. Despite the fact that the ad had been served to someone who was signed into their YouTube account and verified as over 18, it had appeared before content that would have had appeal to very young viewers.

Getting it right

It is worth taking the time to ensure that context, medium and audience are all taken into account when producing advertising to avoid causing serious or widespread offence and harm.

You should also consider who your audience is likely to be and take action where necessary to ensure that your advertising is correctly targeted.

For further guidance we encourage you to contact the CAP Copy Advice team for free, expert advice and guidance.

By Daniel Ware, Compliance Executive

Daniel studied African Studies at the University of Birmingham and obtained an MSC in Global Politics in 2012. He joined the ASA Complaints Team as an exec in 2004, has provided management cover in the Complaints department and moved to the Compliance team in 2007. He ensures compliance by ensuring ASA rulings are adhered to and invokes sanctions where necessary. He also conducts sector sweeps, produces surveys of advertising sectors and occasionally undertakes investigations into advertising.

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