The green fingered amongst us can’t help but notice that garden gnomes have recently stepped out of the undergrowth and into the media spotlight. With the Chelsea Flower Show temporarily lifting its ban on them – gnomes painted by celebrities are being auctioned for charity – it seemed timely to wheel (barrow) out our own gnome related tale.

Although we deal with over 30,000 complaints a year even we are surprised sometimes by the reaction that an ad can provoke. This was certainly the case when a recent TV ad by IKEA featuring garden gnomes prompted nearly 50 complaints that it was offensive, unsuitable for children, frightening, violent and encouraged emulation and anti-social behaviour.

So what did the ad contain to prompt such concerns?

As a starting point, we take all the complaints we receive seriously. However, just because an ad has prompted a negative reaction amongst some viewers does not mean that we will automatically investigate. In fact, the Advertising Code even states that ads may be distasteful without necessarily breaking the rules on harm and offence.

The ad featured a couple clearing out the old furniture and ornaments from their garden. As they did so they were confronted by an increasingly combative army of gnomes that tried to prevent them from replacing the old (them) with the new. Several gnomes were featured being smashed and broken and the ad finished with the tagline “Make more of your garden. Say no to gnomes”.

We didn’t take any further action on this occasion.

While we appreciated that the ad would not be to everyone’s taste we thought it was clearly fanciful and light-hearted. We also didn’t share the view that it would encourage or condone violence or anti-social behaviour and was unlikely to upset children.

Of all the things that advertising does, or is designed to achieve – from promoting brand awareness, generating sales, informing, entertaining and even educating consumers – one thing is indisputable, it gets people talking. Here at the ASA we get drawn into these fascinating and often unexpectedly passionate debates about where the line should be drawn.

While ensuring ads do not cause serious or widespread offence is paramount, particularly when it comes to protecting children, we have to be proportionate and judge prevailing standards. It is not our role to act as censor. The garden gnome ad is a case in point.

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