Oh fudge! Some bloomin’ good advice on swearing in ads

****WARNING! This article contains very strong language****

Swearing or allusions to swearing in advertising often attracts attention (and complaints!) and over the years many advertisers have argued that their humorous intentions weren’t in breach of the Code, from Burger King’s ‘King Tasty’, Booking.com’s “Booking.yeah” to “Sofa King low”.

So, is ‘swearing’ in ads ever acceptable – or can context make a difference? We’ve put together some useful advice about offensive language in your ads and how to avoid the ASA cursing a blue streak.

Oh, fudge!

The ASA recently investigated ads for Tesco Mobile after receiving complaints that using the words “shiitake”, “pistachio”, and “fettucine” in a context where they were intended to allude to expletives was offensive and inappropriate for children to see.

The complaints were, for the most part, upheld, but the ruling drew out a subtle but important distinction. While the ads which more obviously replaced expletives like “shit” and “piss” with the similar looking or sounding “shitake” and “pistachio” were found to breach the Code, as were digital ads which showed “For F…” followed by pictures of pasta and then “sake”, the more obscure choice of just the word “fettuccine” to allude to swearing, was ruled not to breach the Code.

The ASA also received complaints about TV ads for Sky and Green Flag and both of these avoided upheld rulings because the words were sufficiently different to the expletives alluded to. So, “if your flipping car fudging goes kaput” and “what the fudge” weren’t judged likely to cause serious or widespread offence

Complaints about a poster for alcohol-free beer stating “SOBER AS A MOTHERFU” were upheld because the ASA considered the word “motherfucker” was clearly being alluded to, that this was a word likely to offend a general audience and that it was, therefore, inappropriate for display in media where it could be seen by children - such as immediately outside a primary school, where the poster had appeared.

I swear!

Let’s not euphemise, “fuck” and “cunt” are some of the words that you’ll struggle to justify outside of very specifically targeted media.  They lie at the extreme end of the scale in terms of levels of offence likely to be caused by swear words. For more detail, take a look at Ofcom’s research on offensive language, which the ASA often uses to inform decisions on whether a particular word or phrase is likely to offend on a serious or widespread scale.

Deleted expletives

You might think it’s not the end of the f*****g world if you’ve partially obscured any rude words, but it can still be considered problematic.  Replacing letters or even the whole word with asterisks won’t necessarily get you off the hook – it’s all about the content and the context.

For more, take a look at our AdviceOnline article on Offence: Language, and if you need advice on your non-broadcast ads our Copy Advice team are here to oblige.

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