Spotlight on: Offensive language in advertising

Swear words and other forms of offensive language are techniques sometimes used by advertisers looking to grab attention with their campaigns – which may also attract complaints! When does the use of offensive language cross the line? Is it ever acceptable to use swear words in advertising? This article investigates some of the issues with using strong language in advertising, covering recent ASA decisions to assess where the line is drawn for swearing in ads.

Expletives have been used in advertising for decades – the Toyota “Bugger” ad in 1999 is arguably the most memorable, attracting 120 complaints to the ASA before the Complaints Board ruled it unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence, taking into account context, medium, audience and product.

When assessing whether a term is likely to cause offence, advertisers are advised to review the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s research on language that may offend in broadcasting. This research assessed the acceptability of 31 words and terms, based on 11 different broadcast scenarios. The ranking of terms on this list are one factor considered by the ASA Complaints Board when reviewing complaints.

Along with the offensiveness of the term, context and placement of an ad are important considerations for the Complaints Board when reviewing a complaint.  Complaints about offensive language in advertising are considered under Rule 1(c) of the Advertising Standards Code, which states “Advertisements must not contain anything that is indecent, or exploitative, or degrading, or likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence, or give rise to hostility, contempt, abuse or ridicule.”

Careful consideration of the context in which an ad is viewed can reduce the risk of causing serious and widespread offence. A Code breach is less likely if an ad is targeted to an adult audience, and if the Complaints Board considers the term is not widely offensive. In contrast, advertisements where the audience is unrestricted require a heightened standard of social responsibility, particularly when the audience may include a higher proportion of children.

Implied expletives should also be used with caution and advertisers should carefully consider placement of their campaigns to reduce the risk of offence. A recent Complaints Board decision found that the implied meaning of the term “F*CK” was obvious to the majority of consumers and was generally regarded as offensive in an unrestricted advertising medium.

The acceptability of soundalikes can depend on the situation and offensiveness of the word implied. A complaint about a Pak ‘n’ Save billboard was upheld after the Complaints Board ruled the phrase “Ruck Me!” in an unrestricted setting was generally offensive, whereas an Athlete’s Foot shop window poster using the term “We give a Fit” was found No Grounds to Proceed, with the Chair considering the context of the advertisement and ranking of the implied term “Shit” at 30 of 31 terms in the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s language that may offend in broadcasting report.

Derogatory phrases in advertising are also considered under Rule 1(c) of the Advertising Standards Code and are highly likely to cause widespread or serious offence. The Complaints Board upheld a 2019 complaint regarding a 2 Cheap Cars digital advertisement, noting that racial and cultural insults included in the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s 2018 report ranked in the 12 most offensive words, suggesting the public’s rejection of the use of derogatory language directed at a person’s race, culture, or sexual orientation.

Have a question?  To support responsible advertising, the ASA runs the AdHelp Information Service, a user-pays service for advertisers, agencies and media with questions regarding advertising compliance. From general queries to questions regarding technical aspects of the Code, AdHelp can assist in guiding advertisers through Code interpretation and minimise the risk of offence.