May your ads be merry and right!

The lead up to Christmas provides advertisers with a prime opportunity to tap into and reflect the festive feel good factor. But tread carefully; you want your seasonal ad to spread yuletide joy rather than causing would-be consumers to have a bleak mid-winter.

So how have some Christmas ads led to complaints? Most commonly, the ASA receives complaints about Christmas ads on the grounds of religious offence. For example, a poster displayed in the run up to Christmas, for the morning-after pill, which stated “Immaculate contraception? If only” was banned by the ASA because it considered that using a pun based on a fundamental Catholic belief was likely to cause serious or widespread offence in the context of an ad for contraception (Schering Health Care Ltd, 22 December 2004).

Not all references to Christian beliefs or practices are likely to be problematic though. While a Christmas-themed ad referring to "all our stupid songs" prompted complaints that it was likely to cause offence because it mocked carol singing, an element of Christian worship; the ASA noted that the activity was a part of British Christmas tradition, followed by both Christians and non-Christians alike, and didn’t breach the Code (Kentucky Fried Chicken (Great Britain) Ltd, 5 March 2014).

Similarly the ASA rejected complaints about a magazine ad which was headed “The three very wise ice cream men” and featured a traditional nativity scene but with Mary holding a spoon and the three wise men bearing gifts of ice cream. The ASA considered that most consumers would understand the ad to be a light-hearted take on the biblical story, rather than a mockery of Christian belief (Antonio Federici, 29 February 2012).

See our Advice Online for further information on using religious references in marketing communications.

It is not just religious portrayals that can lead to complaints. A TV ad by the supermarket chain ASDA, which stated “Behind every great Christmas there’s mum, and behind mum there’s Asda”, drew a large number of complaints that it was offensive and sexist because it reinforced outdated stereotypes of men and women in the home. The ASA did not uphold the complaints because it considered that the ad simply reflected Asda’s view of the Christmas experience for a significant number of their customers, rather than condoning or encouraging harmful discriminatory behaviour (Asda Stores Ltd, 30 January 2013).

See our Advice Online for further information on using stereotypes in marketing communications.

In a nutshell, if you’re producing a Christmas ad campaign think carefully when using imagery or themes that might offend against religious sensitivities. The ASA will take into account the tone of an ad and the context in which it appears; but, while using humour can negate the likelihood of an ad breaching the rules on harm and offence, advertisers that play on beliefs central to religion are likely to prompt complaints and fall foul of the rules. Moreover, if you’re using gender stereotypes, be conscious of the fact that many people can find them inappropriate and often offensive.

If in doubt, drop CAP Copy Advice a line so they can help you keep your ads merry and bright.

Happy Christmas to one and all from CAP.

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