It won’t have gone unnoticed that the ‘creepy clown’ craze that started in the US has reached the UK and has left some children and adults scared and frightened.
Clowns have been part of the entertainment tradition for centuries and most of us will have grown up seeing one at a circus or a birthday party. However, the creepy clown phenomenon has turned what has been light hearted entertainment into something more menacing with people being chased and threatened.
While it is not uncommon for marketeers to reference a current trend or something in the news in their advertising, now is good time to remind yourself of the rules to avoid causing unnecessary harm or distress.
The ASA has received many complaints over the years about ads that have upset people because of their phobias. Colrophobia – fear of clowns – is one. While phobias are very real and individual to people who suffer from them, almost any theme or imagery in an ad has the potential to trigger someone’s phobia. What one person may find harmful and distressing, another person may not.
Given this, the ASA is unlikely to uphold a complaint against an ad solely on the basis that there is a clown in it. The ASA published rulings on two different outdoor ads featuring clowns that people found ‘scary’ last year. It upheld one but not the other. The ad it upheld a complaint against was for a Halloween event and featured an image of a clown with eyes bright red with dark circles, stitches around the eyes and forehead, and the mouth was painted black and appeared to have been cut open.
The ASA noted that the ad had appeared on untargeted outdoor poster sites including near schools, and that a number of the complainants reported their children becoming very distressed on seeing the image. The ad was banned on the grounds of causing fear or distress without justifiable reason when displayed in an untargeted medium.
The ad it didn’t ban made specific reference to colrophobia, but the ASA felt it was unlikely to cause excessive fear or distress and was not irresponsibly targeted in outdoor media.
What these two cases tell us is that the copy as a whole, whether it is likely to cause offence, fear or distress, as well as the context, is what is taken into account rather than an ad featuring an image that someone may have a phobia about.
The rules state that marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention.
Therefore, the ASA is unlikely to uphold a complaint about an ad for a horror film featuring a clown that appears in the film, provided it isn’t menacing, overtly threatening or suggestive of danger even in an untargeted medium.
If you want to check your ad is on the right side of the rules, contact the Copy Advice team.