A regional press ad for a book release, seen on 3 February 2014, featured the heading "Philip Seymour Hoffman's drug overdose eclipses interest in sculpture trail". Further text below stated "You're deeply saddened by the death of this beloved actor. You're quick to point out your love for his performance in Magnolia and Capote. But the dark truth is that your interest in this story doesn't end there: you also crave the gritty details of his demise. You're fascinated when you read he was discovered in the bathroom with a needle in his arm … Whilst each revelation horrifies you, they also provide you with relief … Whatever you're dealing with at this moment, at least you haven't suffered the way he did. This knowledge is so satisfying that you've barely noticed the article about a proposed sculpture trail in East London. Why are you more concerned about an actor's death than an arts project that will transform your city's cultural life? Find out in Alain de Botton's new book, The News: A User's Manual, because the better you understand your obsession with celebrity, the better you understand yourself".
Three complainants challenged whether the ad was offensive because it used the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to promote the advertiser's book.
The advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather responded on behalf of Hamish Hamilton Ltd. They stated that they had developed the campaign approach in alignment with the author Alain De Botton, but that, as the ad had been created in real time in response to topical events, the specifics of the ad in question had not been approved by the author.
Ogilvy and Mather said the campaign had been developed to promote Alain de Botton's new book, the premise of which was to provoke the reader into thinking about the position the news occupied in their lives, and a particular theme covered in the book focused on why readers took notice of certain articles that had no direct bearing on their lives over other ones that did. They said the campaign was designed to mirror that thought whilst being reactive to the news in its own environment. The idea for each ad was to draw upon the news stories of the day running in the paper to illustrate the premise of the book. They said the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman was prevalent in the news at the time of the ad's placement and was selected for that purpose. They said the ad drew a comparison between the reader's interest in that story to that of a proposed sculpture trail in East London, which was closer to home given the regional circulation of the paper. They said it was not their intention to offend. The content was intended to be topical and thought provoking. However, upon receiving notification of the complaints, they had halted any future insertions of the ad and altered the campaign to mitigate against causing offence.
The Evening Standard said the ad had been subject to careful consideration and considerable discussion in advance of publication. They stated that, whilst the advertisers were trying to sell a commercial product, they were also demonstrating to readers how readers responded to news stories and that consumption of news in an ever more complex media environment was an extremely important democratic issue and one where the public interest was engaged. They said the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman was an especially dominant news story on the day the ad was published and said no detail in the advertisement copy went beyond what had already been copiously published. They said the level of detail was not shocking in itself given the considerable publicity about his problems over some years and in the context of the much more detailed news reports of that day and the day before.
The Evening Standard said the level of complaints to the ASA and to the Evening Standard directly did not in itself indicate any serious or widespread offence. They said the ad had a neutral and considered feel similar to news copy, and the font was small and the text dense. They said the headline was precisely descriptive and the ad did "what it said on the tin". They pointed out that there were no images or graphics, and considered it was a reasonable guess that it was only those readers who were curious about the clearly signalled proposition of the headline who would have been drawn in to the challenge of absorbing the text. They questioned whether what really offended those who found the ad distasteful was being confronted by the human but usually hidden thought processes of our fascination with celebrity stories in preference to a more measured and rational engagement in news that was relevant to what was going on around us. They acknowledged that the ad may have been provocative but not without good reason. They said the ad wasn't using a death directly to sell readers something but was using it to start a discussion to which the advertiser was suggesting Mr De Botton's book could usefully contribute. They said the context of the ad on the run of newspages and its look meant that it was unlikely to have drawn in those who were not prepared to read to the end and think carefully about what it was trying to establish. They said the product was a serious minded book and considered that its intended market was an important factor.
The ASA acknowledged that advertisers were entitled to refer to current news stories in their ads, but noted that the CAP Code stated that references to anyone who was dead must be handled with particular care to avoid causing offence or distress. We noted that the ad was published the day after Philip Seymour Hoffman had died and included a number of details regarding the circumstances surrounding his death. We also noted that text in the ad stated "But the dark truth is that your interest in this story doesn't end there: you also crave the gritty details of his demise. You're fascinated when you read he was discovered in the bathroom with a needle in his arm … Whilst each revelation horrifies you, they also provide you with relief". Although we acknowledged that the ad to some extent reflected the nature of the advertised product, we considered that reporting the actor's death in such a manner and in such detail in order to sell a book on modern culture was likely to cause serious offence to some.
The ad breached the CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
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. and 4.3 4.3 References to anyone who is dead must be handled with particular care to avoid causing offence or distress. (Harm and offence).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Hamish Hamilton Ltd to ensure that their future ads did not cause serious or widespread offence by referring to those who were dead.