***WARNING: This article contains some strong language***

On 27 April 2022, the UK’s advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), banned an outdoor poster which promoted an estate agent, trading as Lamb & Co. Property. The poster, which appeared at the entrance of Waterglade Retail Park in Clacton, showed a sheep, alongside large text which stated: ‘What the flock you looking at?’, with the word ‘flock’ in coloured font for emphasis. The accompanying text read: ‘We’re baa-rilliant at getting your property noticed too’.

The ASA upheld the complaint it received on the grounds that the marketing message alluded to an expletive and that the billboard carrying it was irresponsibly targeted. But what reasons did the authority give and how does it regulate swearing and expletives in ads?

What do the rules say?

The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing, which is known as the CAP Code and serves as the rule book for non-broadcast advertisements and sales promotions, deals with issues around Harm and Offence.

Its Section 4 addresses a range of matters: from portraying harmful gender stereotypes in ads to encouraging or condoning unsafe practices and adversely affecting audiences with photosensitive epilepsy. It also specifies that special care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age.

But the underpinning principle of all the rules in Section 4 is that marketers must take steps to minimise the risk of causing harm or serious or widespread offence, having in mind prevailing societal standards.

Section 4 rules operate alongside the general rules on compliance under Section 1 of the CAP Code which require that all marketing communications must be prepared with ‘a sense of responsibility to consumers and society’. The ASA has been fairly relaxed about the definition of social responsibility and has interpreted it widely to cover a diverse range of issues in marketing communications, including alcohol, drugs, tobacco, violence, body image, children and targeting etc.

Swearing and wordplay in context

The use of expletives (and their derivatives) should generally be avoided in ads, even if they relate to the product or service. Consumer research carried out by the ASA has shown that bad language, swearing and innuendo are likely to cause serious offence, and if used, they must be carefully targeted and accompanied with suitable warnings to potential viewers, even where an ad is addressed to a largely adult audience (e.g., on a product listing online).

For example, the ASA upheld complaints about display ads featuring a mug with ‘UNT’ printed on it, which, in conjunction with the black C-shaped handle, visibly spelt out what many would consider a very strong expletive on a product that was offered on BT’s website and a national news website.

Similarly, recent Ofcom research on public attitudes towards offensive language on TV and radio indicated that swear words like ‘fuck’ and ‘motherfucker’ are perceived as highly offensive and require clear and strong contextual justification.

Milder swear words (e.g., ‘damn’ etc.) may be acceptable in certain contexts, for instance when they are used in a positive light (i.e., ‘a bloody good time!’) in a medium that is primarily aimed at adults. However, Code breaches cannot be ruled out even where the force of a swear-word is such that symbolic stand-ins are used as a substitute for lewdness or to partially obscure the offending term (see e.g., the ASA’s ruling against The Pearl Lounge for their use of the phrase ‘Valentine’s Fu*k Fest’ on their promotional leaflets).

The meaning of terms which would not typically be considered swear-words might be influenced by the context in which they are used. In 2006, the advertising watchdog upheld complaints about a sexually suggestive poster promoting The Gas Showroom (a Yorkshire company specialising in boiler installation and central heating) whose ad was placed in ladies’ toilets and used the strapline ‘Let The Gas Showroom stick something warm in your hearth-hole’. More recently, a 2012 regional press ad for Sofa King with the strapline ‘The Sofa King – Where the Prices are Sofa King Low!’ was banned because, when spoken and heard, it actually sounded like ‘so fucking low’ and could thus cause serious offence.

An interesting contrast concerned a TV ad for the travel booking website Booking.com which repeatedly used the word ‘booking’ in a comical way and in a variety of contexts that lent themselves to substitution with the word ‘fucking’. However, ‘booking’ was deemed sufficiently distinct from the expletive and its use was directly relevant to the advertiser’s brand name and the URL they were promoting. Some viewers might have found the word play distasteful, but its use was not deemed vulgar enough to cross the offensiveness threshold under Section 4.

In the case of the estate agent Lamb & Co, the word ‘flock’ (i.e., a group of animals, like sheep, assembled or herded together) bore some relevance to the brand identity of Lamb & Co, the estate agent. The company is locally known for its use of sheep-themed visuals and terms to make its business known to consumers. Seen alongside other amusing sheep references, e.g., ‘baa-rilliant and the large image of a sheep with its tongue sticking out, the ad presumably intended to create an association in the mind of consumers with the name of the company behind it and thus the source of the promoted services. Even though the poster did not expressly use the word ‘fuck’, the use of the word ‘flock’ in this context would be understood as an alternative to the expletive, alluding to the expression ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’ which many would likely find seriously offensive, irrespective of its playful tone.

What about strong language in charity-linked advertising?

Rare exceptions are allowed in cases where the objectives of an advertisement are charitable and strong language may help to raise awareness around a charity’s causes or highlight its work. Audiences are generally deemed more tolerant towards such initiatives; hence, the ASA might show some leniency. For instance, the regulator dismissed complaints against a Barnardo’s (a children’s charity) ad which appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph and showed a young boy’s face with the wording: ‘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. And we still haven’t.’

The ASA considered that readers would realise that the ad was intentionally hard-hitting to reflect the realities of the situations Barnardo’s workers had to deal with regularly. But, even if an ad uses swearing where it is relevant to the context, marketers still need to think about who is likely to see it.

Audience, medium and targeting

Mild swear-words (e.g., ‘bloody’, ‘balls’ etc.) and word play might be acceptable in newspapers and targeted media, but the same words may have a different effect if they appear on untargeted media such as posters likely to be seen by children (e.g., a billboard which features bad language and is located near a school). For example, the ASA banned an outdoor ad for the 1980s parody rock band Steel Panther because of its ‘overtly sexual’ imagery and the allusion to male genitalia in conjunction with the promoted album’s title ‘Balls Out’.

The ASA may allow commercial companies a little more leeway if there is evidence that their core demographic is unlikely to be offended by the language used in the marketing communication which recipients have signed up to receive. The regulator has, for example, previously held that students and young adults, who were customers of a ‘street style attitude’ fashion brand and familiar with common slang phrases, would probably not expect to receive expletives by virtue of signing up to its mailing list, but they would be unlikely to be seriously offended by the relatively mild swear-words ‘SORT OUT YOUR SH!T’. The risk of offence was also mitigated by the somewhat less offensive spelling and the accompanying video which showed people getting themselves organised, e.g., by searching for new jobs, actively choosing a healthier lifestyle by quitting smoking, sorting out their belongings etc.

In the Lamb & Co case, however, the poster complained of was placed at the entrance of a retail park where it was likely to be seen by a general audience, including adults and children. The humorous image of the sheep was likely to appeal particularly to children, whose parents would probably want them to avoid the word or obvious allusions to it.

Language acceptability in ads can vary

All in all, the ASA considered in its ruling against Lamb & Co that the placement of the word ‘flock’ was redolent of the use of an expletive and in conjunction with the poster’s irresponsible targeting the marketing message as a whole was likely to cause serious offence in breach of both Section 1 and 4 of the CAP Code.

Marketers should be mindful of the medium in which the controversial language appears, the broader tone of the ad and the relevance of the words used to the product promoted. There is no strict definition where the line of acceptability lies, but the strongest swear-words (like ‘fuck’) will generally be unacceptable in any media in the absence of significant contextual justification.

The boundary between subtle wordplay and mild swear-words is less clear-cut. The ASA will be asking several questions when assessing complaints, such as: what is the meaning of the swear word; is its use gratuitous; who is likely to see the ad and what are the audience’s likely expectations; is the expletive used with humour, as a pun or double entendre? Although some words are more likely to be found problematic than others, bad language may escape censure if it is justified by the overall context of the ad and the overall impression it conveys. Some narrow exceptions may be permitted in cases of charity-linked advertising.

Alexandros Antoniou, University of Essex, School of Law