Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
A digital billboard for the cycling clothing company Fat Lad At The Back, seen in July 2022, featured text which stated, “FAT C*N’T … ACTUALLY, FAT CAN.” Further text stated, “Top-quality cyclewear for every body”.
The ASA received 11 complaints:
1. eleven complainants challenged whether the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence; and
2. five complainants also challenged whether the ad was inappropriate for display in an untargeted medium.
1. FLAB Ltd said that the ad had not been created with the intention of causing offence. They said that the ad was part of a campaign designed to challenge negative societal views and attitudes towards overweight and obese people exercising. They said that the campaign aimed to address an important issue of public interest by highlighting what they believed to be a widespread assumption that overweight people were not able to take part in “sporty” activities, such as cycling, or be healthy and fit in their general lives.
FLAB said that considerable thought had been given to the ad during its creation, with consideration given to the placement of the letters and the apostrophe, in order to make the word a contraction. They believed that any potential mis-read of the wording “C*N’T” would have been quickly rectified by a viewer upon a second look, and the point of the campaign would then be made clear. They believed that comprehension of the ads point – that “fat CAN” - would have been instantaneous for the person seeing the ad.
2. FLAB said that they believed the ad was suitable for general placement, because they did not expect that children who saw the ad would replace the missing letter with the letter “U”, therefore spelling the word “cunt”, but instead would assume that the asterisk represented the letter “A”.
London Lites, owners of the digital billboard on which a number of complainants has seen the ad displayed, said that they while they had been aware that the ad was thought provoking, they did not believe that to be enough of a reason to ban it. They said that they had discussed the ad internally, and their staff had all believed that “C*N’T” had been intended to represent the word “can’t”, rather than the expletive the complainants had associated with it, due to the inclusion of the apostrophe. They accepted that the word “cunt” would possibly be offensive to people, but believed that taking the ad to represent that word, instead of “can’t”, was due to the word being formed in the minds of the receiver, rather than being the explicit intention of the advertiser.
The CAP Code required marketers to avoid causing serious or widespread offence.
Consumer research carried out by the ASA and others showed that the use of words such as “cunt” was so likely to offend that they should not be used at all in marketing communications, unless very carefully targeted to an audience that was unlikely to be offended by them.
The ASA acknowledged that the wording of the ad did not explicitly use the word “cunt”. However, we considered that the use of an asterisk to “star out” the letter “U” in the ad meant that consumers were likely to view the ad as making a reference to that word. We noted that the phrase “fat cunt” was an often-used term of abuse, whereas “fat can’t” was not a well-known or used phrase. While we considered that most people would understand the ad to be a play on words, and that the subsequent use of “fat can” "revealed" the first phrase to be “fat can’t”, we nevertheless considered consumers were likely to see the ad as making an obvious allusion to the word “cunt”.
We acknowledged FLAB’s comments that they were trying to raise awareness of, and challenge, issues faced by overweight and obese members of society. However, we considered that did not justify the allusion to a word that was so likely to offend.For those reasons, we concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
On that point, 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: age; disability; gender; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. 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).
As above, research had shown that words such as “cunt” should not be used at all in marketing communications, unless very carefully targeted to an audience that was unlikely to be offended by them. The ads appeared on a digital billboard, which was an untargeted medium and was therefore likely to be seen by people of all ages, including children. A number of the complainants also identified that children they had been with at the time they saw the ad had speculated on the nature of the word featuring the asterisk symbol, with many understanding that it was intended to suggest an expletive.
Because we considered the ad was likely to be seen as referring to a word that many would find extremely offensive, and appeared in an untargeted context, we considered that the ad was inappropriate for outdoor display where it could be seen by children.
On that point, the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 1.3 1.3 Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. (Social responsibility).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told FLAB Ltd to take care to avoid causing serious or widespread offence in future, and to ensure their ads were appropriately targeted.