Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
A series of posts on Poundland’s Twitter and Facebook page, promoting the #ElfBehavingBad campaign, seen in December 2017:
a. An ad, posted on 11 December, featured an image of a toy elf and a bottle of De-Icer placed in front of a car windscreen which featured a drawing of a pair of breasts. The caption stated, “Oh Elf, we know it’s nippy outside but not that kind of nippy! #ElfBehavingBad”.
b. An ad, posted on 12 December, featured an image of the toy elf in a sink filled with bubbles sitting with two female dolls, taking a selfie. The caption stated “Rub-a-dub-dub, three in a tub. A night of ‘Selfies and chill’. #ElfBehavingBad”.
c. An ad, posted on 13 December, featured a moving graphic of the toy elf with a toothbrush placed between its legs whilst motioning back and forth. The caption stated, “That’s one way to scratch that itch. That’s not Santa’s toothbrush is it?!”.
d. A tweet, posted on 15 December, featured an image of the toy elf holding a spherical shaped object and a Darth Vader toy holding a lightsaber. The caption stated, “Buzz off Darth, my lightsaber is bigger than yours”.
e. An ad, posted on 16 December, featured an image of the toy elf sitting on a toy donkey’s back with the caption, “Don’t tell Rudolph I’ve found a new piece of ass”.
f. An ad, posted on 18 December featured an image of the toy elf next to a drawing of a phallic-shaped tree with the caption, “That’s one very prickly Christmas tree”.
g. An ad, posted on 19 December featured an image of the toy elf wearing a dark moustache holding an arrow that pointed towards it, which featured the text “FREE moustache rides”. The caption stated “First come, first served”.
h. An ad, posted on 20 December featured an image of a toy elf playing a game of cards with three unclothed dolls. The caption stated “Joker, joker. I really want to poker”.
i. An ad, posted on 21 December featured an image of the toy elf holding a tea bag between its legs with a female doll lying beneath it.
85 complainants challenged whether:
1. The ads were offensive for their depiction of toy characters and other items which had been displayed in a sexualised manner; and
2. The ads were unsuitable to be displayed in an untargeted medium where children could see them.
1&2. Poundland Ltd stated that their elf campaign was based on humour and double entendres.
They explained that while the nature of a double entendre was that they would not be understood by children. They also stated Twitter and Facebook had policies which prevented under-13s from creating accounts on their websites and Poundland had never sought to encourage anyone other than adults to follow Poundland on these social networks.
They provided an appendix, which contained highlights of comments they had received in support of the campaign and referenced results from a poll conducted on Twitter where 82% of a sample audience containing over 12,000 responders supported the campaign. The results were almost equally split between men and women. They provided information on the volume of interactions they had during the campaign, which included 33 million impressions in total, 4 million engagements – including reactions, comments, retweets, shares and replies – as well as 43,000 new followers with the most significant peak on the 21 December, when the campaign went viral. They stated a large number of people found the campaign to be humorous, engaging, and in line with what it meant to be British.
They stated they did not intend to offend anyone.
1. & 2. Upheld
The ASA understood the campaign was based on a toy elf, which resembled the popular children’s Christmas tradition known as “Elf on the Shelf”, from the book of the same name. The elf was depicted in various scenarios where he was shown to be behaving in a mischievous manner, with some images captioned with the hashtag #ElfBehavingBad. The overall campaign was based around puns and double entendres, which included sexual references.
Poundland’s Facebook and Twitter pages were not age-gated and could therefore be seen by anyone. Although we did not consider they were likely to be of particular interest or appeal to children, we did not consider those who were already following the pages would expect to see sexual or offensive content. We also noted the ads had been shared widely on social media and therefore would have been seen by a large number of people, including some children, who did not actively follow Poundland on social media.
The image and caption in ad (a) depicting a pair of breasts drawn on a car windscreen and ad (f) which featured the elf beside a sketch of a penis-shaped tree were obvious sexual references that were shown to be drawn by the toy elf. We considered ad (c)’s depiction of the elf thrusting a toothbrush between its legs to be interpreted as a sexual act. Ad (d)’s inclusion of the caption, “my lightsaber is bigger than yours” and the elf waving a vibrator were also obvious references to sexual acts.
We considered ad (b), which depicted the elf and two unclothed female dolls placed in a sink filled with bubbles and the caption, “A night of ‘Selfies and chill”, to be a play on the term “Netflix and chill”, which was a widely known term implying sexual activity. We also noted ad (g), which featured an image of the toy elf wearing a dark moustache with the text “FREE moustache rides”, was an implied reference to oral sex. We considered ad (e), which featured the toy elf placed on the toy donkey’s back with the caption, “Don’t tell Rudolph I’ve found a new piece of ass”, was a pun of a sexual nature.
We considered the depiction of a child’s toy in relation to such sexual references and acts in a medium which could also be accessed by children was irresponsible and likely to cause serious or widespread offence, therefore breaching the Code.
We further noted ad (h), which featured a group of unclothed dolls playing what appeared to be strip poker captioned with the phrase “I really want to poker”, was a sexual reference aimed towards the female dolls. We also considered ad (i), which featured the elf holding a tea bag between its legs with a female doll lying beneath it, was also a reference to a sexual act. Both ads (h) and (i) presented the female dolls in a manner which could be seen as demeaning to women. We considered these ads were irresponsible and likely to cause serious or widespread offence by depicting a child’s toy in relation to such sexual acts, therefore breaching the Code.
We therefore concluded the ads, which depicted the toy figures in a sexualised manner and appeared in an untargeted medium where they could be seen by children, were irresponsible and were likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
Ads (a), (b), (c), (d), (e), (f), (g), (h) and (i) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.
(Social responsibility) and
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 their current form. We told Poundland Ltd to ensure that their advertising was presented with a sense of responsibility and did not cause serious or widespread offence.