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Some of the ads on this list might surprise you. What won’t surprise you is the British public’s unwavering ability to be offended by the innocuous, but let’s not get into all that.   

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently released its list of the 10 most complained-about ad campaigns in 2015, and while I find some of the inclusions quite surprising, I thought marketers could perhaps learn a thing or two from this list.

In reverse order of most-complained about, 2015's most controversial ads were:

10. Omega Pharma – 136 complaints, upheld

Marketing a ‘slimming aid’ to a demographic to whom healthy diet and rigorous exercise are readily available and much less likely to kill you seems morally questionable to me anyway.

Throw in a bit of body shaming and you’ve got a real corker. 

Usually I don’t hold complainers in particularly high regard, but in this case I think they were justified. The ASA clearly agrees with me given that this is the only ad on the list to have actually been banned. 

The ad features an already very slim woman getting sad when she sees a photo of her friend, who has lost weight to become even slimmer.

But fear not – all she needs to do is take this magical little pill and she can be just as thin and happy as her friend.

omega pharma slimming aid ad banned

9. Nicocigs – 145 complaints, not upheld

People objected to this ad for electronic cigarettes because they felt it appealed to children. 

The ASA disagreed, however, and didn’t ban the ad, saying that the it was not scheduled around programming likely to appeal to children and nor did its style appeal to that age group.  

I couldn't find the original ad (I know – journalism is dead), so have this generic stock image instead.

electronic cigarette ad complaints

8. Department of Health – 181 complaints, not upheld

Moving to the other side of the fence now, this one was part of an anti-smoking campaign and featured a man rolling a cigarette full of flesh and blood. 

But while people found it ‘graphic and gruesome’, the ASA refused to ban the ad on the basis that it contained an important message and was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

7. Booking.com – 201 complaints, not upheld

This one is entirely baffling for anyone who is not a fully fledged killjoy. People were literally offended by the suggestion of a word that they find offensive, without the actual word ever having been said. 

The ad replaced said word with ‘booking’, but the ASA quite rightfully declared it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. 

6. British Heart Foundation – 219 complaints, not upheld

Everyone has come to expect shock tactics from charity content, but 219 people found this clip of a young boy talking to his father – who has just died of a heart attack – a little bit too distressing. 

But the ASA ruled that the ad didn’t appear around children’s programming, and that while some people may have found it upsetting it was unlikely to cause widespread distress. 

5. Protein World – 380 complaints, not upheld

Okay, this one technically isn’t digital, but it spawned an enormous amount of (mostly negative) user-generated content on social media, so it totally counts. 

Even Carlsberg had a pop...

The ad had by far the most media attention in terms of controversy thanks to its unrealistic portrayal of what a ‘good body’ looks like, and I’m inclined to agree with those who were pissed off by it. 

Although perhaps that’s because I have pasty skin and haven’t seen the inside of a gym in more than a decade.  

Either way, the ASA declared that the ad could not run again in its current form, although it did say it felt the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. 

protein world tube ad

Here’s a defaced version that also made headlines…

protein world tube ad defaced

4. Booking.com – 407 complaints, not upheld

Who knew Booking.com was so good at offending people? 

This is the same deal at the previous entry from this brand, i.e. people getting offended by the suggestion of a word without actually having heard the word that may or may not have been replaced by the word ‘booking’. *Sigh*

In any case, the ASA obviously didn’t ban this one either. 

3. Paypal (UK) Ltd - 464 complaints, not upheld

This ad appeared on TV and video-on-demand (VOD), and parents were worried that – wait for it – the ad ‘revealed the truth about Father Christmas’. 

The ASA did not ban the ad, although Paypal did change the scheduling of it to make it less likely to be seen by children whose parents wished to continue 'the big lie'. 

2. Booking.com – 683 complaints, not upheld

Really? My faith in the famous British sense of humour is fast becoming thin.

Perhaps we should ban the words ducking, mucking and sucking in case somebody doesn’t quite hear the first letter and has a hissy fit. 

1. Moneysupermarket.com – 1,513 complaints, not upheld

This one is actually quite interesting, receiving by far the most complaints of all the ads on this list. 

I get that some people might think the advert was odd, but complaints came in about the main character’s clothing and dance moves and because they believed the content was ‘overtly sexual’. 

Given that this is a digital marketing blog and not my own ranting platform I’ll refrain from giving too much of my opinion on this, but suffice to say I found Sharon Osbourne's presence far more offensive than the rest of it. 

Are you offended by any of these?

I do think a couple of these bend the unwritten rules of morality and generally not making society a worse place to live. But for others I find it baffling that they even made this list. 

What do you think? Do any of these cross the line when it comes to responsible marketing, and do you agree with the ASA’s decisions? 

Let me know your thoughts below...

Jack Simpson

Published 1 March, 2016 by Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (1)

Henry Elliss

Henry Elliss, Digital Marketing Director at Tamar

With 9 out of 10 not uphelp, it's a wonder people bother to complain really!

Also, the only thing worse than those awful Protein World ads is their blatant and cheesy 'celebrity' endorsements on instagram and twitter. Once a week a slew of models, instagram stars and Page 3 girls will post a picture of themselves with their Protein World powder jar and a bizarre hashtag or two - all at the same time. Not a single disclosure on any of them, either.

7 months ago

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