A website offering fancy dress costumes, http://m.joke.co.uk, included an ad for an "Adult Golly Costume" that featured various images of a man wearing the product. Underneath the images, text under the heading "Info" stated "Our amazing Golly Costume is a fantastic recreation of the popular rag doll character and is ideal if you are looking for a memorable outfit! Costume includes: Jacket with waistcoat and gloves Shirt front with bow tie Shoe covers Wig Mask The Golly Costume includes a red tailcoat with white buttons at the back, an attached white waistcoat and a pair of black gloves. Also included is a black shirt front with an attached black and white striped bow tie, a pair of black and white stripy trousers, black shoe covers, a black curly wig and a black mask with white circles around the eyes and a smiley mouth".
The complainant, who believed the depiction of the Golly Costume was racist, challenged whether the ad was likely to cause serious offence.
Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade (Abscissa) said it was not their intention to offend. They said they appreciated that there were individual costumes on their portfolio that might be perceived as insensitive or provocative to some, but that was the nature of fancy dress. They said there seemed to have been a media appetite over the past year to sensationalise a new theme of "bad taste fancy dress" and gave examples of news articles that debated the value of such products. They said the Golly costume had received a large amount of media attention in November 2013 when it was highlighted that it was being sold on a large online retail platform. They said they did not condone the media stereotyping of "bad taste fancy dress" and would continue to try to offer a wide and varied portfolio of products to the market, as consumers demanded.
They stated that, on balance, they neither considered that their Golly costume was racist nor did they think the majority of the public did. They pointed to reader comments in response to an online national press article about the costume, which they believed showed that a significant proportion of the public did not find the product offensive. They said it was a very popular costume with positive feedback from consumers. They said their research into the Golly costume prior to placing it on sale included an assessment of the quantity of people searching for the product within their own websites and Google's keyword analysis tool. They said they had appreciated the potential controversy of selling such a product and the sign-off for production of the costume had been agreed primarily because "Golliwog rag doll" toys were already sold online and such sale was not judged as illegal.
They questioned whether the complainant objected to the ad itself, or whether they objected to the fact that the item was on sale at all. They said the images used in the ad were actual photographs of the costume and the content description was a true and fair representation of the costume's contents. They said they had deliberately chosen not to use the full "Golliwog" name as they believed that would be intrinsically and morally wrong. They said they had reviewed the content of the ad since being notified of the complaint, and had removed multiple uses of the word "black" from the product description in order to give it less of a colour focus.
The ASA noted that the product was featured on a website selling humorous fancy dress costumes, but was not otherwise targeted. Although we noted that the website had a section for "Bad Taste and Shocking Fancy Dress Costumes" that listed a number of products described as "inappropriate", we noted that the Golly costume did not feature on that page.
Although advertisers were entitled to sell any product whose sale was legal, the Code required marketers to ensure that ads did not contain anything that was likely to cause serious or widespread offence, and particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race. We noted that the ad featured an image of a person in a full body costume with black skin, curly hair, a large striped bow tie and red jacket. We considered that the image had connotations with the nineteenth-century "Golliwog" character and the negative racial stereotypes that the character represented. We therefore concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule
Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards.
Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule. Marketers are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material.
The fact that a product is offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code. (Harm and offence).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade to take care to avoid causing serious or widespread offence in future.