A TV ad for Legal Utopia, a legal support app, seen on 22 October 2021, featured a voice-over that stated, “I’ve discovered Legal Utopia; the app to help you save time and potentially save money … It’s accessible, affordable law for all and for all sorts.” The voice-over continued by giving examples of when the app could be used, including “… claims against shoddy shysters”, accompanied by a shot of a women speaking angrily on the phone as she examined leaky pipes under a sink.
IssueThe complainant, who understood the word “shyster” was a derogatory term used to describe Jewish people, challenged whether the ad was offensive.
Legal Utopia Ltd said their agency referred the ad to Clearcast who had no objection or concern to the use of the term “shyster”. Legal Utopia said that they based their interpretation of the word “shyster” on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a “dishonest or unscrupulous person”. They added that the Advanced American Dictionary defined the term as “a dishonest person, especially a lawyer” but that the ad was exclusively broadcast in the UK. Legal Utopia understood that the etymology of the word was not clear and that most interpretations did not have an antisemitic basis. They argued that the interpretation that the word came from the Shakespeare play “The Merchant of Venice” from the 16th century was exceedingly remote and unsupported. As such they did not consider that the use of the term would or could cause serious or widespread offence.
Clearcast said the reference to “claims against shoddy shysters” in the context of a woman looking annoyed at a burst pipe under the sink was considered at pre-production stage. They believed that the etymology of word ‘shyster’ was generally agreed to come from German and in modern usage to mean “unscrupulous or disreputable person”. They understood that the word may have antisemitic connotations possibly arising from the Shakespearean character from The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, but that there was no clear evidence to support this. Overall Clearcast considered that it was very clear from the context of the ad that the word would be interpreted by the viewer as it was intended by the advertiser - to mean unscrupulous or disreputable tradesperson.
The term “shyster” was used in the ad accompanied by footage of a woman speaking angrily on the phone whilst examining leaky pipes under a sink. The ASA considered that the context of the scene, in an ad for an app in which users could seek legal support, implied that the woman was berating a plumber who had carried out substandard work and that she could choose to seek legal recourse through consulting the app.
We understood that there were a range of opinions about the etymology of the word “shyster”, including that it referred to the character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice who was a Jewish moneylender. Others believed the word originated from the German word “Scheißer”. We understood that its common usage in British English was to describe an unscrupulous or disreputable person.
We sought a view from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who had no concerns about the use of the term in the ad.
We considered that in the context used in the ad, most viewers would understand the term “shyster” as referring to an unscrupulous plumber who had carried out substandard work and failed to correct it. We acknowledged that some viewers may find the term distasteful but we concluded that in the context of the ad it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.
We investigated the ad under BCAP Code rule
Advertisements must not cause serious or widespread offence against generally accepted moral, social or cultural standards.
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. (Harm and Offence) but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.