Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
An Instagram post from clothing retailer ThruDark, posted 18 July 2023, featured a video that began with a human-shaped figure wearing a hooded pink coat, seen at a distance standing against one of three wooden frames in front of an earth bank in a field. A person wearing a black hooded coat stepped into view close to the camera, pulled out a semi-automatic rifle and began shooting at the pink-coated figure. Slow motion close-ups showed bullet holes appearing in the coat. The black-hooded individual walked whilst firing, towards the pink-coated figure, changing magazines before pulling out a pistol and continuing to fire. A close-up of the pink-coated figure revealed that it was a mannequin. Further shots destroyed the mannequin’s head while a short scream was heard. The black-hooded individual walked away, towards a building with a corrugated iron roof, showing the ThruDark logo on the back of the coat. They then turned back, pulled out a shotgun that was hidden under the coat and began firing again. Large holes appeared in the mannequin’s head and torso and its head fell off. The black-hooded individual finally walked away and the video cut to a black screen with the text “There can be only one”, followed by ThruDark’s logo. Throughout the ad, classical music was played in the background. The video’s caption stated “‘There can be only one.’ #shroud #thrudark #endeavourthroughadversity”.
The ASA received 11 complaints.
1. The complainants, who believed the ad implied the pink-coated figure was female and the black-coated figured was male, challenged whether the ad was irresponsible, offensive and condoned and encouraged violence, particularly against women.
2. Some of the complainants challenged whether the ad was also irresponsible because it glamourised guns and gun violence.
1. & 2. ThruDark Ltd said they had a proud military heritage and had shown weaponry in previous brand communications and content as a reference to their background. They had established themselves as a brand that was known for their tongue-in-cheek humour and disruptive messaging. They said the ad’s scenario was filmed in good humour and had comedic intention. They had used classical music by Chopin in the background, which they specifically chose to soften and mock the crude nature of the scenario. Additionally, they had used the “Wilhelm scream” stock sound, an inside joke among sound designers, for slapstick comedic effect. They considered that the “Wilhelm scream” was particularly illustrative of the humorous nature of the ad. Some aspects were filmed in slow motion to lessen the sense of realism and heighten the slapstick tone, which was intended to parody the glamorisation of violence frequently shown on television.
They considered it was clear from the beginning of the ad that the pink-coated figure was a mannequin. They said it was male in form and did not have feminine facial features, as shown in a “behind the scenes” video shared by a co-founder. They considered that if viewers believed the mannequin was female because it was wearing a pink changing robe, that belief was rooted in the viewer’s own prejudices. They said they had taken positions against the “shrink it and pink it” culture shown by other brands and pointed to previous posts in which they questioned why womenswear was equated with the colour pink. They had used the colour pink because that was the most radical visual departure from their signature black branding and it was the first, brightest-coloured robe they had to hand. They had consistently spoken out against brightly coloured clothing given their background in night operations as part of elite military units. They also did not consider that the black robe would be assumed to indicate the male gender. In the context of the music, comedy sound effects and slow motion, the contrast in the colour of the robes portrayed a fantastical battle between light and dark. The slogan “There can only be one” was a clear reference to the changing robe comparison. It also referenced the cult 1980s fantasy film Highlander, reinforcing the sense of fantastical battle.
On the use of guns during the ad, they stated that the simple presence of a gun was not, in and of itself, evidence of a particular stance on gun usage. They said ads for violent action films, children’s toy guns and clay pigeon shooting were permissible on social media platforms. They considered the presence of weapons in the ad was in keeping with their brand’s military heritage and identity. They said that the ad was not irresponsible, because the actions took place in a secure firing range by a highly trained former UK Special Forces operator, and the use of an inanimate object minimised any potential risk of harm. They considered that it was clear that the location was a firing range and not a field because of the target stations, sand bank and covered firing positions. They also said that public disclaimers were messaged at the time. They believed it was not relevant that the firearms used were semi-automatic, but highlighted that the use of semi-automatic weapons would typically be considered to be less extreme than the use of automatic weapons.The ad did not include any form of encouragement or incitement of violence against minority groups, or anti-social behaviour. The ad was in line with their military heritage and was overall well received by the 350,000 people who had viewed it. In their view, the 11 complaints reflected the internalised biases of the complainants and did not evidence that the ad caused serious or widespread offence or was irresponsible.
Meta said that they investigated the matter and had restricted the ad from appearing in the United Kingdom.
The CAP Code stated that marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. It further stated that marketing communications must not contain anything that was likely to cause serious or widespread offence and that particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age.
The ad depicted a black-hooded figure repeatedly shooting at a figure wearing a pink coat. The ASA noted that the distinctive colouring of its coat was particularly prominent against the otherwise gloomy colour-scheme. While we agreed that colours were not inherently gendered, we considered that pink was culturally associated with femininity in the UK. In that context, we considered that the simplistic imagery of the stark contrast between the black and pink figures visually alluded to the figures being, respectively, male and female. A close-up of the mannequin’s delicate facial features, which when surrounded by the pink hood we considered would be read as feminine, further enhanced this contrast with the black-hooded figure.
We considered that viewers would interpret the ad as alluding to a man shooting and killing a woman or as practising and preparing for a similar scenario. We considered that the ad glamorised and condoned that scenario and was unlikely to be understood as a parody. Rather than suggesting a comedic tone, we considered the use of gentle classical music, with slow-motion emphasis on the damage inflicted on the mannequin, added an eerie tone to the ad. We also considered only a small proportion of the ad’s audience were likely to recognise the “Wilhem scream” and be aware of its background.
We therefore concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious and widespread offence, that it condoned and encouraged violence against women, and was irresponsible.
On that point the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 (Social responsibility), 4.1 and 4.4 (Harm and offence).
We understood the ad was intended to promote the changing robe worn by the black-hooded figure. We further understood that ThruDark had a military legacy as its founders had previously served in the UK Special Forces. While the ad was set in an outdoor environment and the brand was focused on outdoor clothing, we understood that the guns shown in the ad were not equipment which would typically be used for sport or legal hunting in the UK. We therefore considered that, in the context of an ad from a clothing retailer for outerwear, the presence of three semi-automatic firearms was incongruous and jarring.
Throughout the ad, the black-hooded figure repeatedly fired at the mannequin using a semi-automatic rifle, pistol and shotgun, until its head fell off. We considered that the particular weapons used, and the relentless shooting at the target, displayed an extreme level of violence which, as referenced above, would not be interpreted as a comedic parody. Although we accepted that the inclusion of a gun in an ad would not always be irresponsible, we considered that the use of multiple guns (and the particular weapons used), in an ad which promoted an item of outerwear, together with the focus on the guns’ destructive capacity and the added emphasis of the slow-motion effect, glamorised guns and gun violence.
We therefore concluded that the ad irresponsibly glamorised guns and condoned gun violence and was in breach of the Code.
On that point the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 (Social responsibility) and 4.4 (Harm and offence).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told ThruDark Ltd to ensure that their ads were socially responsible, did not cause serious or widespread offence, and did not condone and encourage violence, particularly against women. We also told them not to glamorise guns and gun violence in their advertising.