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Five means by which your brand can get away with "outrageous" advertising

1 July 2015

The ASA have today announced that the infamous ‘Beach Body Ready’ advert by Protein World was not offensive, despite receiving 378 complaints and being the subject of significant public outrage. Some (but not all) brands would consider this the holy grail of advertising, because in addition to the media coverage purchased there is the significant press and social media coverage as well, without the negative impact of an ASA ruling.

The advert itself featured, controversially to some, an image of a healthy woman in a bikini advertising a product that was directly relevant to keeping in shape. The ruling says a lot about the ASA’s approach to outrageous advertising and advertisers should note that there is a thin line to cross when trying to ensure that your risqué advert is complaint with the CAP Code.

Careful with the caption

Firstly, the Protein World advert demonstrates the power of a slogan in advertising when used with a potentially controversial image. Fortunately, the Protein World caption did not use derogatory or sexist language to suggest all women should try to look like the photograph of the model in the bikini. However the wrong wording could easily have meant the ASA considered that the advert crossed the line.

This is demonstrated well by Victoria’s Secret’s use of ‘The Perfect Body’ caption, across an image of their customary thin models, which led to a PR disaster. After a huge backlash from customers, Victoria’s Secret eventually issued an apology and amended the caption but it is important to note that they still used the same image, again emphasising the importance of how a caption can drastically change the tone of a whole advert.

Consider the medium

It’s important to remember that the medium can also play a large part in how an advert is perceived by the public. This was shown through the reaction to an advert used by The Sofa King, a furniture company who ran adverts across their delivery vans using the slogan ‘Where the Prices are Sofa King Low!’ The Sofa King had been running the advert for nine years and whilst nobody had ever complained about the vans (they were probably too busy laughing), as soon as the slogan was published in a regional press advert it immediately attracted complaints.

Even if the target audience is similar, somehow it is more acceptable to see a tongue-in-cheek slogan on a van than in print. In contrast, the Protein World advert may not have caused such uproar if it had been published in a women’s magazine, where messages about being ‘bikini ready’ are commonplace. However, printing this advert on huge public displays in the London Underground gives a completely different impression to the target audience.

Language and tone

Another point that The Sofa King ruling raises is the context in which bad language or word play can be used. One of the most complained-about adverts this year was a TV advert for Booking.com which repeated the word ‘booking’ seemingly in replacement for a swear word. The ASA has stressed that the acceptability of swearing can vary according to the medium and way in which language is used and the Booking.com adjudication is a useful example of an advert with shock value but that was not considered to be offensive. In particular, the advert had a comical and positive tone and the word ‘booking’ was not used in a derogatory way. The ASA noted that the humor was derived from the substitution rather than the use of an expletive and the word ‘booking’ was in fact relevant as it was being used in the context of an advert for holidays.

Is it relevant?

As the Booking.com adjudication demonstrates, relevance and context play an important role in whether a seemingly shocking statement or image will be deemed acceptable. This is also evident from the Protein World advert, as clearly the image of a healthy woman in a bikini was particularly relevant to the product being advertised. If there is no relevance then similar images could be considered to be objectification, as shown in an advert for DIY tools which featured a proactive image of a woman in her underwear which clearly had no relevance to the product being advertised.

Do not be deliberately outrageous

Finally there are often adverts that are so outrageous that no amount of editing will make stop people getting offended, as shown through the most-complained about adverts of all time by Paddy Power. Paddy Power ran a one-off advert which used shock tactics to trivialise issues surrounding the murder trial involving Oscar Pistorius, the death of a woman, and his disability – and attracted a record 5525 complaints. Although the advert was swiftly removed, it does bring into consideration questionable tactics used by advertisers to shock their audience in full knowledge of the fact that the ASA will ban such an advert. Whilst such campaigns can and do bring priceless press coverage, using such outrageous adverts is a high risk strategy that could easily damage the wrong brand reputation beyond repair.

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