Summary of Council decision:
Three issues were investigated, all of which were Upheld.
Three digital outdoor ads for Digital Mums, a digital skills training company, were displayed on large screens alongside major roads in September 2017.
a. One ad seen at a road junction in Hounslow, West London and along the M5 in Birmingham, contained text which stated "HEY, YOU IN THE SILVER CAR. EVER THOUGHT ABOUT F******* WORKING?".
b. A second ad, seen at the same road junction in Hounslow and along the M5 in Birmingham, contained text which stated "IS TODAY THE DAY YOU ASK YOUR BOSS TO DO SOME F******* WORK?".
c. A third ad, seen near a road junction in Birmingham, contained text which stated "WANT A HAPPIER LIFE? DO SOME F******* WORK".
The ASA received four complaints from members of the public who had seen one or more of the ads.
1. Two complainants in relation to ad (a);
2. Two complainants in relation to ad (b); and
3. One complainant in relation to ad (c)challenged whether the use of "F*******" was offensive.
1., 2. & 3. Digital Mums Ltd believed the ads were in line with what had previously been considered acceptable under the Codes. They had taken advice from the CAP Copy Advice team and believed the ads complied with that advice. Digital Mums Ltd said the ads did not degrade any group. They accepted that any word that included asterisks was open to personal interpretation but said that, in this case, it contained the correct number of asterisks for the word "Flexible" (the intention of the ads was to promote flexible working). They said they had included a reveal in the ads, which they believed made clear that the asterisked word was "Flexible".
1., 2. & 3. Upheld
The ASA noted that the ads were displayed on large screens alongside major roads. We acknowledged that Digital Mums Ltd had consulted the CAP Copy Advice team, whose view was that the ads were likely to be acceptable as long as the true meaning of the asterisked word was made immediately clear. Digital Mums had supplied an example of how the asterisked word alternated with the full word "Flexible". We noted, however, that CAP had not been asked for a view on the ads in the context of placing them alongside major roads. We considered that those who saw the ads were likely to be vehicle occupants travelling along major roads and, in that context, those who saw only the screen showing the asterisked word were likely to receive a brief impression only of a word beginning with "F" followed by asterisks. We considered they would be unlikely to be aware of, or count, the number of asterisks or be aware that the ad referred to flexible working. From the wording of the sentences that the word formed a part, we considered they were likely to assume that the sentence referred to a swear word. We acknowledged that the wording did not appear in a violent or sexual context but that, by appearing in capital letters and appearing to address the reader, it nevertheless could be taken to have a fairly aggressive tone.
Because we considered the ads were likely to be seen as referring in an untargeted context to a swear word that many would find offensive, we considered that the ads were likely to result in serious offence to many and were in breach of the Code.
The ads 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 ads must not appear again in the forms complained about. We told Digital Mums Ltd to ensure they avoided causing serious or widespread offence by, for example, avoiding references to expletives that were likely to be found widely offensive in untargeted media.