****WARNING! This article contains very strong language****
Complaints about swear words in ads are commonly on the grounds that they are likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Considered under 4.1 of the CAP Code, the rule gives the ASA scope to take the following factors into account in arriving at its decision:
What is the meaning or relevance of using the swear word? Is its use gratuitous? What is the tone of the ad; is the expletive used with humour, as a pun or double entendre?
In Booking.com (2015), the ASA noted the repeated references to “booking”, which some complainants believed was a substitute for “fucking”, were relevant to the advertiser name and its URL. The use of “booking” was therefore in context and given that the ad did not actually use explicit language, it was deemed ok. Similarly, a Burger King (2010) campaign attracted complaints from people who believed the references such as “KING TASTY” and “KING GREAT” alluded to a swear word but the ASA cleared it on similar grounds.
An interesting contrast concerns a regional press ad for The Sofa King Ltd (2012), “Where the prices are Sofa King Low”. That ad fell foul of the Code because, when spoken and heard, the strapline actually sounded like the word “fucking”, rather than a derivative of or an allusion to it.
Medium & Audience
It goes without saying that a billboard located next to a school featuring a swear word would be ill-advised, but the same creative treatment in a more targeted medium could be acceptable.
In URBN UK (2013), an email which advised customers to “SORT OUT YOUR SH!T…” didn’t breach the Code because the company’s core demographic of students and young adults were unlikely to be offended by that language. Moreover, in order to receive the email in the first place, recipients had to join the mailing list. But, a promotional email sent by Spotify Ltd (2013), which was intended to recommend songs to a user, included a recommendation for a track called “Fuck You”. Even though it appeared alongside other recommendations and was used in context, the ASA ruled it broke the rules (see Prevailing Standards, below).
If the swear word is central to the product itself, marketers sometimes substitute some of the letters for symbols or partially obscure the word.
In Smellyourmum.com Ltd (2013), “YOU’RE A C*NT” appeared on a Christmas card and in Firebox.com Ltd (2014), an ad featured a product called the “UNT Mug” and showed an image of the C-shaped handle with the letters UNT printed after it. Even though those words were obscured, were relevant to the products and appeared in the context of online shops (where they would be seen by adults rather than children), the ASA ruled that they were so likely to offend that they shouldn’t have been used at all.
It’s worth noting that the ASA seemed to suggest in the Firebox case that had the website included a clear and prominent warning to potential viewers, it might have been acceptable. This has yet to be tested and marketers should be aware that such a warning might not suffice if they cannot demonstrate that the target audience is primarily made up of adults.
Ultimately, certain expletives – “fuck” and “cunt” - are probably never going to be acceptable, except perhaps in the narrow circumstance outlined above, and both ASA consumer research and the cases above support this.
Read our advice on Offence and Language.