The advertising rules are clear, ads shouldn’t contain anything that’s likely to cause serious or widespread offence. But how do we decide what is and isn’t acceptable? What’s the difference between an ad being in bad taste and being offensive? Where do we draw the line?

Ads get us talking. We know this because we receive around 30,000 complaints a year about 20,000 or so ads. While the majority (70%) of the complaints we receive are about misleading claims, the ads that prompt complaints en masse are often those that have upset people because they contain themes or images that they find offensive.

Judging whether some ads that undoubtedly cause offence should be banned presents us with a challenge. After all, what one person finds offensive another will find perfectly acceptable. And, vice versa, what one person finds funny and amusing another will find gravely distressing.

In all of this it’s important to note that there are ads that fall into a grey area and, while they do not necessarily cause outright offence, still raise concerns in the form of complaints because they are seen as being in bad taste.

The advertising rules allow for the fact that some ads may be distasteful. Just because someone doesn’t like an ad, be it because it’s irritating; contains images that some find repugnant or unpleasant, or is about a subject or issue that makes people feel awkward, is not necessarily reason for us to ban it.

Our decision making in this area inevitably involves a degree of subjectivity. But our rules help guide us in making as balanced a judgment as we can.

We take into account the audience that is likely to see the ad. Is it going to be generally suitable for them and in line with their views and expectations of what the advertiser has to say? For instance, it’s one thing an advertiser targeting its ad, which might contain risqué or challenging content, at an adult audience as opposed to targeting it at a general audience that might include children. So the media in which an ad appears can play an important part in minimising the risk of an ad causing offence.

The context in which an ad appears and the product it is promoting also has a bearing on whether it will be acceptable. For example, using stark and upsetting imagery in a charity ad to raise awareness of an important issue is generally more acceptable (to consumers and the ASA) than say an advertiser using similarly provocative imagery to advertise an everyday consumer product or service. Using shock tactics is not prohibited by the rules but using them carefully and in context is key to reducing the likelihood of an ad prompting a negative reaction amongst viewers.

Then there are prevailing standards in society. In reaching a decision on whether to ban ads on the grounds of offence we take into account how individuals, groups or wider society as a whole who may see the ad are likely to react to it. To help judge prevailing standards, we commission consumer research to find out what concerns people, what causes offence and where they think the line should be drawn, all of which helps us in our decision making.

We of course take seriously concerns that we receive, but it’s crucial that we take a balanced and proportionate approach when applying the rules. Is the offence that’s been caused so serious that the rights of the offended should outweigh the rights of the unoffended to see and hear what the advertiser has to say? What about the advertiser’s right to free expression?

When a line has been crossed we will act, particularly where the protection of children is concerned. But, banning an ad because it has caused offence is not straightforward; nor is it a decision that we take lightly. Advertisers can and do create ads that are deliberately irreverent, strange, annoying, weird, fantastical or just plain odd. Not everyone will like them, but bad taste doesn’t always mean offence and, by extension, it doesn’t mean an ad should always be banned.

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