A regional press ad for Vic Smith Beds, seen in the Enfield and Haringey Independent newspaper on 12 February 2020. The ad included a cartoon image of an upright mattress, which had a Union Jack on the front, and which was wearing a green surgical mask. Text stated, “BRITISH BUILD [sic] BEDS PROUDLY MADE IN THE UK. NO NASTY IMPORTS”.
Two complainants challenged whether the ad was likely to cause serious and widespread offence by linking concern about the ongoing coronavirus health emergency to nationality and/or race.
Vic Smith Bedding Ltd t/a Vic Smith Beds said they would ensure the ad was not repeated. They said it had not been their intention to cause offence, and that their customer base was a multi-ethnic mix, so it would not have made sense to offend their customers. They said they had run the ad past their multi-cultural workforce, without any issues being raised, and that the idea was based on their customers having suggested they should advertise the fact that their beds were British-made. Vic Smith Beds said it was never their intention to be offensive or racist and they did not think they had been. While they could understand the complaints, they had perhaps naively intended to answer their customers’ ongoing daily questions. They said their beds had been made in the UK rather than sitting in a damp container sent from China. The ad was intended to refer to mould spores that could develop in those conditions and the smells given off from chemicals from damp rolled mattresses: hence the upright Union Jack mattress. Vic Smith Beds said they had been advertising in the Enfield and Haringey Independent for a number of years, and their ads had been rejected in the past where it was believed they did not comply with the Code. They had therefore believed there were no issues when their ad layout was accepted. The Enfield and Haringey Independent said they would not publish the ad in future.
The ad was seen in the context of widespread news coverage of a developing major outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019-nCov, or COVID-19 (coronavirus), in China, with a small but growing number of cases having been confirmed in the UK. News outlets had also reported some groups being physically and verbally targeted because of their nationality and/or race in relation to fears about coronavirus. The ASA understood that, in particular, a number of Asian people had reported receiving abuse as a result of wearing face masks.
The CAP Code required marketers to ensure that ads did not contain anything that was likely to cause serious or widespread offence, with particular care to be taken to avoid causing offence on various grounds of protected characteristics, including race. We noted the reference to “BRITISH BUILD” [sic] beds, and the image of the Union Jack, and we understood that the advertiser’s intention was to draw attention to the fact that their beds were made in the UK. However, we also considered that the phrase “NO NASTY IMPORTS”, in combination with the image of the surgical mask, was likely to be taken as a reference to the coronavirus outbreak. We considered that in combination with the image, the reference to “nasty imports” was likely to be read as a negative reference to immigration or race, and in particular as associating immigrants with disease.
We therefore concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious and 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. We told Vic Smith Bedding Ltd t/a Vic Smith Beds to ensure they avoided causing serious and/or widespread offence on the grounds of nationality or race.