Summary of Council decision:

Two issues were investigated, of which one was Upheld and one was Not upheld. 

Ad description

An ad for giffgaff, played on YouTube, opened with sounds of a woman screaming for help.  She was running along a road at night being pursued by a man who appeared to be holding a chainsaw.  As the ad developed, a stream of screaming characters was introduced, each being pursued by the last.  They included the initial woman and man, a clown, a zombie, a pumpkin head, a doll holding a blow torch, a ghost and a man with an upside down head.  The collective of characters was then seen as a mock choir, 'singing' outside a house.  On-screen text stated "When you're scared, you're not the boss.  At giffgaff we're all the boss.  giffgaff  the mobile network run by you …".  


The ASA received two complaints:

1.  one complainant, whose child had seen the ad before a programme for young viewers, challenged whether it was appropriate for children; and

2.  the second complainant, who had seen the ad on a number of occasions while watching music videos and who pointed out that it was not possible to skip until three seconds had played, challenged whether the ad was unduly distressing.


YouTube confirmed that the video was delivered as an ad and believed it was compliant with advertising policies.  They were not aware of any complaints about the ad having been made directly to YouTube and asserted that it remained the advertisers' responsibility to ensure that ads were appropriately targeted.

1.  giffgaff explained that the ad was a parody of horror films and was designed to be playful and clever rather than scary.  It was intended to raise awareness of giffgaff over Halloween and was in keeping with advertising, TV programming and video content at that time of year.  They believed the ad was inappropriate for children and so it was delivered to YouTube viewers whose account details recorded them as over the age of 18.  giffgaff implemented a two-tier filter targeting process, however, and targeting was not based solely on the account holder's age.  They explained that the ad was only made available to account holders who had, through their Google network user history, searched for content on a particular topic such as 'horror' or 'Halloween' in the past, or who were watching video content on YouTube on a similar topic at the time that the ad was served to them.  In addition, they needed to be logged in at the time that the ad was seen; any user who was not logged into their account would be classed as 'unknown' and the ad would not be targeted at them.

They explained that retargeting was also used to serve users, who had previously been targeted with a trailer of the ad, with the full version of the ad after its release and understood that the complainant had seen the ad as part of the retargeting campaign.  They were served the trailer of the ad because they were logged in as over 18 years of age, had searched for similar content and had not skipped the trailer on any previous occasion.

giffgaff believed the ad's targeting was appropriate and that they had put in place adequate protections through YouTube's filters to ensure that it was targeted responsibly.  They explained that it was impossible to monitor an individual user's activity and could not control a scenario where an adult allowed a child access to an account.  They added that YouTube offered users the functionality to create multiple accounts for adults and children, which was made available to all.

2.  giffgaff gave their opinion that the ad was unlikely to cause harm to people over the age of 18.  They explained that the tension in the opening 20 seconds subsequently dissipated into humour as the zombies and other creatures were introduced.  The content, tone and message were light-hearted and would be understood by adults.

They explained that they had elected for the ad to be played for five seconds before it could be skipped, but did not believe the content in the initial five seconds to be unduly distressing; the screen was black and only the beginning of a woman's screams were heard.


1.  Upheld

The opening scene of the ad was tense with a dark background and eerie sound effects before the introduction of the female character, who appeared to be in terror, screaming, "Someone please help me".  The ensemble of creatures who followed her were also introduced as menacing and, although it was revealed at the close of the ad that the 'choir' was unthreatening, young viewers were unlikely to understand the plot's twist or recognise that the monsters were not as they appeared.  We considered that the ad was unsuitable for young children to view.

giffgaff had explained that the ad was made available only to YouTube subscribers who were signed into their account, such that their age was verifiable.  We also understood from the background information provided that the account holder was served the ad because they had searched for similar content previously.  We understood, however, that the ad was played before a programme of interest to very young viewers.  While the account holder was over 18, the content of the programme in which the ad was seen was unlikely to be of interest to them and any over 18s watching were likely to be doing so in order to accompany young children.  Although we acknowledged that the ad had been targeted in line with the profile of the account holder, including their search history, and that giffgaff had no control over the age of people accessing the account of an over 18-year-old, in view of the content of the programme material being watched at the time, it was reasonable for consumers to expect that only advertising material that was suitable for a young audience would be shown.  

While we recognised giffgaff's efforts to target the ad to over 18s, and understood that they had used YouTube's targeting filters to their full extent, we considered that, ultimately, it had not been targeted appropriately and was therefore in breach of the CAP Code.

On this 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).

2.  Not upheld

We understood that the ad appeared over Halloween and considered that adult viewers were likely to recognise the ad's timed theme.  Although we acknowledged that the complainant had found the ad difficult to watch, with particular reference to the woman's screams, we considered that it was unlikely to cause fear or distress to adults. No graphic imagery was seen in the opening sequence and a skip function was included to enable those who preferred not to see the ad to bypass it.  Those who continued to watch would experience the unfolding of the plot and any menace implied by the introduction was quickly dispelled.  

On this point, we investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rule  4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention.  (Harm and offence), but did not find it in breach.


We told giffgaff to ensure that future ads were targeted appropriately.

CAP Code (Edition 12)

1.3     4.2    

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