Offensive ads: consider the context


The ASA's recent ruling in relation to an ad for Dawn French's tour is an interesting reminder that when considering the likelihood that an ad will cause offence, context is key. 

The ad in question was placed in The Sunday Times Culture magazine, and included the title of Dawn French's tour, “Dawn French is a huge twat.”. The ad was challenged on grounds that it was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

The ASA took into account a number of factors, including: the medium used for the ad; that “Dawn French is a huge twat.” is the name of Dawn French's tour; the fact that the phrase was used in the context of referring to/promoting the tour; and that the audience would know Dawn French and that the phrase was in keeping with her style of humour. Based on the factors considered, the ASA ruled against upholding the complaint. 

Ultimately, marketing in the UK must be Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful (with decency presumably the ASA's focus for this ad). But that must also be weighed against the right to freedom of expression granted under section 12 of the Human Rights Act (and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights). Determining the balance between these two things is a complicated but necessary exercise in order to determine whether marketing that may be 'sailing close to the wind' is likely to be permissible. So whilst some may find the ASA's ruling surprising given the use of the word "twat" (and when set against a backdrop of historic ASA rulings against brands like fcuk), this ruling demonstrates that a multitude of different factors will impact the assessment / balancing act, and what is and is not likely to cause offence will not always be clear-cut.  In the circumstances, it's interesting that those factors must have persuaded the ASA that the ad satisfies the decency requirement. As such, the practical takeaway from this case is that it's crucial to carefully consider all relevant factors when determining whether or not an ad is likely to cause offence. 

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whilst some readers may have found the ad distasteful, it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence
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