A Dawn French ad was cleared by the UK’s advertising watchdog after the title of her live show attracted complaints, but does this mean that the use of strong language in ads is now acceptable?
The use of offensive or vulgar language in advertising can be a risky strategy that may backfire. Although there are reasons why advertisers may resort to the use of swear words in their marketing communications, it is an oft-encountered misconception in the industry that the use of edgy or provocative language can be effective in grabbing attention and creating buzz around a product or service.
In 2022, I published research in the Journal of Computer, Media and Telecommunications Law (Communications Law) to enhance our understanding of where the boundaries of acceptability lie. The article considers the extent to which advertisers can expressly use, or use by implication, swear words in their marketing communications. To this end, it examines formal rulings issued by ASA within a period of five years (from June 2017 to June 2022).
My analysis distinguished between explicit and implicit forms of swearing in advertising (‘swear-vertising’) and found that within the category of implicit swear-vertising, the overall picture is sharper and more nuanced. I uncovered three different marketing techniques, which warranted different regulatory responses: (a) direct substitution for expletives with attention magnets; (b) indirect swear-play and (c) indirect substitution for expletives with acronyms. I also generated diagrams to help practitioners and advertisers navigate this area and avoid missteps in marketing campaigns.
What happened with the comedian’s show?
A press ad for comedian Dawn French’s show, which stated ‘Dawn French is a huge twat’, was challenged by two complainants on the grounds that it was likely to cause serious or widespread offence. The ad, an example of explicit swear-vertising, promoted French’s UK tour and appeared in December 2022 in The Sunday Times Culture magazine.
The solo show, which presents an amusing string of the actress’ behind-the-scenes showbiz reminiscences, has largely received positive reviews as ‘a mini-masterpiece of self-mockery’.
What does the CAP Code say?
The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (the CAP Code) is the rule book for non-broadcast advertisements and contains rules on issues around harm and offence.
Its Section 4 addresses a range of matters: from portraying harmful gender stereotypes in ads to 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. The overarching principle is that marketers must take steps to minimise the risk of causing harm or serious or widespread offence, taking into account prevailing societal standards. These are assessed with reference to research commissioned at regular intervals to help the regulator understand dominant public perceptions of what is offensive or harmful.
Section 4 rules operate alongside the general rules on compliance under Section 1 of the Code which requires that all marketing communications must be prepared with ‘a sense of responsibility to consumers and society’. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has generally interpreted the concept of social responsibility loosely to cover a diverse range of issues in marketing communications, including health claims, misleading saving claims, alcohol, violence, body image etc.
And, what about offensive language in particular?
As regards offensive language, the general rules set the bar relatively high and will not automatically prevent the use of fruity or strong language. Context is everything. Whether the language used is likely to cause serious or widespread offence will usually depend on two central factors: what was said (and whether it is in common usage) and where it appeared.
Mild swear-words (e.g., ‘bloody’, ‘balls’ etc.) and word play that clearly alludes to offensive language are not always off-limits but may be problematic if they appear on untargeted media such as posters likely to be seen by children (e.g., a billboard located near a school). For example, the ASA banned an outdoor poster at the entrance of Waterglade Retail Park in Clacton which promoted Lamb & Co. estate agents and showed a sheep alongside large text reading: ‘What the flock you looking at?’
The ASA may, however, allow advertisers a little more leeway with edgy language if there is evidence that their core demographic (e.g., a younger or more liberal audience) is unlikely to be offended by the language used in the marketing communication which recipients have signed up to receive.
Moreover, factors such as the overall tone of an ad (which might affect how consumers interpret it), the overall impression it conveys and the extent to which a word is relevant (if at all) to the advertised product or service, are likely to weigh heavily too. If an advert, for instance, is intended to be humorous or satirical, the use of distasteful or coarse language may be seen as more palatable.
It was precisely the combination of context and targeting that worked in favour of Phil McIntyre Entertainments, the promoter of Dawn French’s live show. The ad appeared in a subscription-based medium whose readers were deemed familiar with the actress’ comedy background. Despite its sexual overtones, the word ‘twat’ was not, in this case, considered to be out of step with the publication’s editorial style and would likely be understood to have self-deprecating and humorous rather than disparaging intentions.
This, however, does not open the door to the use of strong language in ads. There are still some words that are unlikely to be deemed acceptable in marketing communications.
Dropping the C-bomb
Obvious allusions to strong expletives (and their derivatives) can prove problematic. Ads that do not explicitly include expletives in full but attempt to obscure part of the word (or otherwise disguise a swear word) are still likely to be found in breach of the rules if that word is deemed seriously offensive and audiences are likely to recognise the word by easily filling the gaps in their minds.
The ASA recently upheld eleven complaints against a digital billboard for cycle-ware which stated ‘FAT C*N’T… ACTUALLY, FAT CAN.’ This is an example of implicit swear-vertising in which the expletive is replaced with a visual hook. The contraction had been intended to represent the word ‘can’t’ and the stated intention behind the campaign (conceived by the agency Mellor&Smith) was to challenge the perception that cycling is only for skinny people.
The major media owners refused to run the ad, but Mellor&Smith went ahead with it by enlisting the help of a smaller provider, even though they were conscious that it was a ‘risky idea’. ‘Aggressive levels of fly-posting everywhere’ supported large-format digital boards too. The ad was eventually banned, though only after the campaign ran its full course in June 2022.
Despite the use of an asterisk to ‘star out’ the letter ‘u’, the regulator held that consumers would easily associate the word with the expletive which is considered one of the least acceptable words. Recent Ofcom research on public attitudes towards offensive language on TV and radio indicated that the swear word ‘cunt’ is perceived as highly offensive and its use requires strong contextual justification. The ad was also found to be inappropriately targeted, as it could be seen by people of all ages including children. The ruling is unsurprising and consistent with the ASA’s previous approach (see, for instance, past adjudications against online gadget retailers BanterKing and Firebox).
In their public reaction to the ASA’s ruling, the advertisers described the considerable thought and planning invested in the ad during its creation. ‘There’s [sic] no shortcuts to banging ideas’, Mellor&Smith stated. But the agency might have had their tongue firmly in their cheek.
In fact, there is no shortage of banging ideas. It is not about how quickly one reaches the destination; it is about the journey and the decisions made in the creative process. While ‘fat can’t’ enjoys a very low level of recognition, the phrase ‘fat cunt’ is an abusive term. What the advertisers may have seen as light-hearted in tone, it arguably masks playground-level name-calling that achieved little more than perpetuating pejorative stereotypes which overlook the complexity of health and the many factors that contribute to it. Such stereotypes can lead to behaviours like extreme dieting or over-exercising to achieve a certain body type, which can cause harm to one’s health.
Instead, advertisers should aim to create content that is sensitive to diverse audiences (and without resorting to derogatory banter). This can be achieved in several ways: by featuring, for example, a variety of realistic and relatable body types (including those that are traditionally under-represented or marginalised in media); by avoiding harmful language that emphasises body shame and idealises a certain body type; by promoting a more holistic approach to health, fitness, and well-being, and by partnering with body positivity advocates to advance a more inclusive message about body image and encourage social change.
So, expletives, taboo language, swearing and innuendo can cause serious offence. If used in commercial communications, they need to be carefully targeted, contextually justified and accompanied by suitable warnings to potential audiences, even where an ad is largely addressed to adults. Their potential to reinforce harmful stereotypes should not be overlooked.
Alexandros Antoniou, Essex Law School, University of Essex
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