Advertisers often use shock tactics to grab the attention of consumers, but occasionally those methods can fall foul of the advertising regulators.
CAP, the body responsible for writing and maintaining the UK advertising code, has just updated its guidance on offensive language so advertisers have a better idea of how far they can push their expletives and euphemisms.
Here’s what’s OK and what’s not OK in the eyes of the UK ad watchdog.
Light swearing when targeted appropriately
“Bloody,” “shag,” “slag,” “piss,” “pee,” and “balls” are all acceptable “when targeted appropriately.”
Light swearing targeted inappropriately
“Hurt me you slag.”
Brands can’t run content that carries an allusion of sexual violence. In 2002 a Unilever campaign for its Pot Noodle brand was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for changing its tagline from “the slag of all snacks” to “hurt me you slag.”
In 2013 the ASA chose not to uphold complaints about the line “Give a fork about your pork” in an ad from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.
Obvious double entendres
Words not usually considered swearwords can still be offensive depending on the context in which they are used.
The ASA has previously upheld complaints about the phrases :
- “Let the gas showroom stick something warm in your hearth-hole” (The Gas Showroom, 2006)
- “Grinding, banging, stripping, spreading, screwing, sucking, swivelling, vibrating, pumping…job done” (Balloo Hire Centre, 2006)
- “Poker in the front…liquid in the rear” (Bet United, 2007)
- “The Sofa King – Where Our Prices Are Sofa King Low!” (Sofa King 2012).
Vulgar language is fine as long as people find it humorous, rather than offensive.
In 2009 the ASA rejected a complaint about the use of the word “guff” in a Britvic Soft Drinks campaign, because most people were likely just to find it funny.
Ads that use symbols to replace swear words
Nope, you can’t just get away with it by blocking out part of the word. In 2012 a nightclub leaflet ad promoting a delightful “Valentines fu*k fest” was banned by the ASA.
Charities using really strong language.
UK charity Barnados’ ran a press campaign in 2007, which ran text stating “He told his parents to f*** off. He told his foster parents to f*** off. He told fourteen social workers to f*** off. He told us to f*** off. But we didn’t.” The ASA rejected complaints about the ad because it raised awareness of Barnado’s, often tough, work.
DEFINITELY NOT OK
Other brands using words like “F***” and “C***”.
These words are deemed so likely to offend they should generally not be used in marketing communications, “even if they are relevant to the product.”
One recent example of a banned ad carrying these strong expletives include a product listing for a “UNT” mug on gift website Firebox.com, which, if the handle was held at a certain angle, spelled out a swear.
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