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Offence: Language

Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.

The acceptability of language in marketing communications can vary according to the word used, the medium in which it appears and other factors, such as tone, that might affect how consumers view it.  Some words are unlikely ever to be acceptable marketing communications, but for others much will depend on the overall impression of the ad.

Context is important

Marketers should bear in mind that a word’s impact can be heavily influenced by the context in which it is used. For example, the ASA did not investigate complaints when Unilever described Pot Noodle as being “the slag of all snacks” but upheld complaints when the claim changed to “Hurt me you slag”, because it considered the allusion to sexual violence to be unacceptable (Unilever Bestfoods UK Ltd, 28 August 2002). See Sexual Violence.

In the past, the ASA has judged “bloody”, “shag”, “slag”, “piss”, “pee” and “balls” to be acceptable when targeted appropriately.  Marketers are nevertheless urged to take care when using expletives and should note that even mild swearwords might offend in certain circumstances. In 2007, the ASA considered complaints about the phrase “WHERE THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU?” and concluded that, whilst it was acceptable in newspapers and targeted media, it should not appear in posters, because they were likely to be seen by children (Australian Tourist Board t/a Tourism Australia, 28 March 2007).

Some factors that the ASA may take into account include: whether the word is in common usage (Greenpeace, 29 April 2002); the general tone of the marketing communication (Samaritans, 25 June 2003); the choice of medium and the likely audience (URB UK Ltd, 10 April 2013) and the word's relevance (if any) to the advertised product (Virgin Megastores, 20 April 2005).
 
Charities using strong language may be treated with a little more leniency by the ASA.  In 2007, the ASA rejected complaints about a national press campaign to raise awareness of Barnado’s work. The ad stated “He told his parents to f**k off. He told his foster parents to f**k off. He told fourteen social workers to “f**k off. He told us to f**k off. But we didn’t ….” (Barnardo’s, 22 August 2007).

Expletives to avoid

Consumer research conducted by the ASA and others has shown that some expletives, such as “fuck” and “cunt”, are so likely to offend that they should generally not be used in marketing communications, even if they are relevant to the name of the product.  For the use of such words to be acceptable, marketers will need to be able to demonstrate that ads have been carefully targeted at an audience who are unlikely to be offended by them.  In 2013, the ASA ruled that an ad on Amazon.co.uk, for a greetings card with the slogan “YOU'RE A CUNT SORRY, I MEANT TO SAY ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’” had breached the Code, despite acknowledging that, in the context of an online shop, it was more likely that the ad would be seen by adults rather than children (Smellyourmum.com, 20 March 2013).  Similarly, the ASA held that the phrase “fuck you” was unacceptable in an email from a general online music service (Spotify Ltd, 4 December 2013).  In 2014, the ASA held that products containing expletives or words likely to cause serious or widespread offence, or allusions to such words, should only appear in marketing communications where a clear and appropriate warning has been given first (Firebox.com Ltd, 22 October 2014).  However, marketers should note that this is only likely to be appropriate in the context of marketing communications with a largely adult audience.

Double entendres and word play

Words that are not normally considered swearwords might 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 Ltd, 30 August 2006); “Grinding, Banging, Stripping, Spreading, Screwing, Sucking, Swivelling, Vibrating, Pumping … Job Done” (Balloo Hire Centre Ltd, 22 November 2006) and “Poker in the front … Liquor in the rear” (Bet United Ltd, 17 October 2007).
In 2012, the ASA upheld complaints about the use of the phrase “The Sofa King - Where the Prices are Sofa King Low!” in a regional press ad. The ASA noted the ad did not make explicit use of an expletive but considered that the phrase was likely to be misread as containing a swearword and was therefore likely to cause serious or widespread offence (The Sofa King Ltd, 29 February 2012). More subtle word play may be acceptable – in 2013 the ASA chose not to uphold complaints about the line “Give a fork about your pork” (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, 22 May 2013).

Similarly, ads that do not explicitly state full expletives, but use symbols to replace some letters, might still breach the Code.  In 2012, the ASA held that it was offensive to use the phrase “Valentines fu*k fest” on a leaflet promoting a club night (The Pearl Lounge, 25 April 2012).  However, in another case that year, the ASA held that although “effin”; “***cking” and “fukkit” were obvious derivatives of the word “fuck”, they were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence to the target audience of the advertiser (URBN UK Ltd t/a Urban Outfitters, 14 November 2012).

Vulgar language

The mere fact that a word might be considered vulgar by some is unlikely to result in action by the ASA.  In 2009 it rejected a complaint about the use of the word “guff” because it considered that most readers were likely to find the word humorous, rather than offensive (Britvic Soft Drinks Ltd, 11 November 2009).

See Offence: General.

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