Over the last few days there has been extensive news coverage of the decision by a media agency, DCM, to prohibit an ad by the Church of England from appearing in some cinemas. The decision has prompted widespread debate; with many people, from social commentators to the Prime Minister, voicing an opinion on whether the ad, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, should have been allowed to run. But what are the rules surrounding religious ads and where does the ASA stand on the issue of advertisers not being allowed to run their ads in the first instance?
The non-broadcast Advertising Code does not prohibit religious ads. Religious ads do, of course, have to stick to the same rules that apply to all advertisers and that require ads do not contain anything likely to mislead, harm or offend. They should also be prepared in a socially responsible way. The rules apply across all media (except TV and radio) including to ads appearing in cinemas.
Ads that appear in broadcast media (TV and radio) have a specific set of advertising rules. In summary, the rules are designed to:
- reduce the social harm that can result from damage to inter-faith relations
- protect the young and allow parents to exercise choice in their children’s moral and philosophical education
- protect those who are vulnerable because, for example, of sickness or bereavement
- prevent potentially harmful advertisements from exploiting their audience
Ads for religious groups or organisations can run into problems if they stray beyond general claims about belief or faith. We expect advertisers to hold evidence to back up their claims, so, for instance, if a religion stated that it could cure serious medical conditions through the power of prayer then it would probably break the rules. That kind of claim could prevent a potentially vulnerable person who may be critically ill from seeking professional medical care and advice. But general claims that religion or faith can promote spiritual wellbeing or information about an organisation’s beliefs and views is not likely to be a problem.
In terms of an advertiser being refused space to run its ad, that decision is entirely at the discretion of the owner of the media space in which the ad is due to run. The ASA cannot intervene. While advertisers and, indeed, the wider public may disagree with a media owner’s policy, the initial decision whether to accept or reject an ad (or ads) rests with them.
We respond to concerns about ads once they are shown in public; we don’t have the power to tell a media owner to let an advertiser advertise. Our role is to judge ads (that the public see) against the Advertising Code and ensure that they’re sticking to the rules. Those that don’t will be removed. And that’s the chapter and verse on the advertising rules surrounding religious ads.