Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated,
Two ads for www.rakuten.co.uk, an online retail website:
a. A display ad seen in March 2016 on bt.com featured a product called the "UNT Two-Tone Mug" and showed a picture of the mug, which had a dark blue C-shaped handle and the letters 'UNT' printed in dark blue after it.
b. A source content widget that contained six ads run through the Taboola network, seen in March 2016, which appeared on a national news website, was headed "More From The Web - Sponsored links by Taboola". Each ad linked through to the advertiser's own website. One of the ads featured the same picture as ad (a) and included a link to Rakuten's website.
The ASA received two complaints.
1. Both complainants challenged whether ad (a) was likely to cause serious offence; and
2. One complainant challenged whether ad (b) was also likely to cause serious offence.
1. & 2. Rakuten Europe S.à r.l (Rakuten) said that due to the characteristics of the product, it did not display the offensive word in its entirety and therefore, it had, unfortunately, passed their technical filters. Upon notification of the complaints, they asked their display partners to ‘blacklist’ the product which meant ads for it would not appear again in advertising space on websites provided by ad networks.
In response to ad (a), BT offered their apologies to customers who saw this ad. On notification of the complaint, BT removed the ad from being included in advertising space on their website.
BT explained that the nature of ‘real time advertising’ meant that there were thousands of brands bidding to appear in their advertising space. In order to monitor all of the potential ads, BT’s third-party ad partner had systems in place which allowed it to create blocks and filter out offensive advertising. They explained that the third-party ad partner had monitored the ads to make sure they were categorized correctly, but unfortunately on this occasion it seemed that their systems did not pick up the particular tone of this Rakuten product. They said that Rakuten was now blocked from their websites and they were looking into the matter further to ensure it did not happen again.
In response to ad (b), Taboola said that their role in the ad appearing on a third-party website was in their capacity as an advertising network. They had no involvement or input into the content of ad (b), or any other ads which were delivered through their advertising network. That notwithstanding, they confirmed they had Advertiser Content Guidelines with which all partners delivering ads through their network must comply. They acknowledged, however, that on this occasion ad (b) did not comply with those guidelines.
Taboola said they did not receive any complaints about the ad directly. However, upon being notified of the complaint, they took immediate action to remove the ad by removing the relevant feed from their network. As a result, they said the ad should not reappear on any websites served by their ad network.
1. & 2. Upheld
The complainants challenged whether the ads were offensive because they believed the ads featured an expletive. The ASA noted that although the full expletive had not been spelt out, it had used the handle of the mug to create the impression of the "C" which was painted dark blue The handle matched the dark blue "UNT" letters on the mug, contrasting with the white background. We considered consumers would therefore understand that the intended meaning of the "UNT" letters placed next to the "C" shaped handle was to spell ‘CUNT’, especially as the product was entitled the "UNT Mug".
Ad (a) appeared on the bt.com website which featured content relating to BT’s services and ad (b) appeared on a national news website, which included content on a large number of varying sectors and topics. We noted the content of the ads was therefore a strong juxtaposition with the content of those websites. We considered a broad range of consumers were likely to visit the websites and concluded that in that context the clear allusions to the word ‘cunt’ in the ads were likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
On these points, ads (a) and (b) 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 Rakuten Europe S.à r.l to take care to ensure that ads that marketed products containing expletives or allusions to expletives did not appear in contexts in which they were likely to cause serious or widespread offence.