An internet ad for a Christmas card, displayed on www.amazon.co.uk, featured an image of the card, on which text stated "YOU'RE A CUNT SORRY, I MEANT TO SAY 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'". Text alongside the image stated "YOU'RE A C*NT Sorry, I meant to say 'Merry Christmas' - Greeting/Christmas Card by SMELLYOURMUM".
The complainant challenged whether the ad was inappropriate and offensive.
Smellyourmum.com (SYM) believed the use of the word 'cunt' should be considered in the specific context of it appearing on a humorous card intended for close friends or family; in that context it was simply the set-up to the punchline of the gag. It was not offensive and did not single out any groups of people based on ethnicity, religion, appearance or other characteristics. SYM said that when used with a positive qualifier, in this case 'Merry Christmas', the word could convey a positive sense of the person or object referred to, and they understood that the origins of the word were non-offensive. They said a documentary devoted to the word had been broadcast on the BBC and they believed that if it was acceptable to broadcast a documentary which used the word repeatedly and which had greater reach than their advertising in terms of audience, it was acceptable to use it in their advertising.
SYM said they accepted that some people might have had a strong reaction when seeing the word in the Amazon listing, because they had failed to view it in context. They said that unfortunately the Amazon system did not allow them to list an item in specific 'adults only' or 'over 18' categories and it also did not allow them to censor the image. They said they would happily alter the image if that would help.
Amazon queried whether it was within the ASA's remit to prevent the display of product titles and images which were not otherwise prohibited by applicable decency laws. They said it was appropriate for the ASA to investigate ads used to generate sales, but it was inappropriate for the ASA to investigate the display of a product for sale, especially if that investigation targeted one retailer amongst many selling the same product online.
Notwithstanding that, Amazon said they were confident that the display of the product image was compliant with the CAP Code. The card was not offensive, aggressive or lewd in its message. The wording of the card did not target any particular group, nor was it likely to cause offence to any particular race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. It was meant as a bit of light-hearted, irreverent fun. They acknowledged that the humour might not be to everybody's taste, but considered that the subjective values of a small minority who might find it distasteful should not dictate a product's availability or the method of its advertisement to the wider public. They noted that Code rule 4.1 stated that marketing communications "may be distasteful without necessarily breaching" the rule. Amazon said the card had not been included in any customer mail-outs and, assuming that children would rarely search for Christmas cards, the only people who were likely to come across the listing were adults.
The ASA considered that the product listing was an advertisement which fell within the remit of the CAP Code and it was therefore appropriate for us to investigate the complaint we had received. We understood the product might be available for purchase elsewhere online, but considered that because we had received a complaint specifically about an ad by SYM on Amazon, it was entirely appropriate to investigate the ad specifically in that context.
We acknowledged that the wording of the card did not target any particular group, and also acknowledged that in the context of an online shop it was likely that in the majority of cases the ad would be viewed by adults rather than by children. Nonetheless, we noted that CAP guidance on language advised advertisers that consumer research showed that the use of the word 'cunt' was so likely to offend that it should not be used at all in marketing communications even when it was relevant to the name of the product. We noted the expletive in the product description was partly obscured by an asterisk but considered that even in the absence of the product image which showed the word in full, the intended meaning was still clear. We concluded the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule
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 ad must not appear again in its current form. We told SYM to take care to avoid causing serious or widespread offence in future.