2015’s most complained about ads

Feb 23rd '16

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have published 2015’s Top 10 most complained about ads and it was all about themes and issues that people found offensive.  This, despite the fact the majority of complaints to them are about misleading ads.


…while matters of offence can grab the headlines, the bulk of our work is the less glamorous task of tackling misleading advertising. That’s why we’re taking a more proactive approach to address the issues which affect consumers the most before complaints need to be made.

Guy Parker, ASA Chief Executive


Moneysupermarket.com tops the list with 1,513 complaints.  The ad featured a man walking down a street and dancing in high heels and denim shorts, which some members of the public considered to be offensive.  Filling three slots in the Top 10 was Booking.com, at numbers two, four and seven, with their play on the word ‘booking’ which was thought to be in place of a swear word.  The third most complained about ad (Paypal’s Christmas campaign) drew complaints because it cast doubt over the existence of Santa.  Featuring prominently in the Top 10 list are charity ads and public health messages (British Heart Foundation and Department of Health) which can sometimes prompt complaints due to their sensitive content and handling of hard-hitting issues.


Ads which prompt complaints on the grounds of harm and offence clearly divide opinion. But the number of complaints an ad receives is only one factor in determining whether it has broken the rules – a fact illustrated by this year’s Top 10 list. In reaching a decision on whether to uphold complaints, the ASA take into account factors including audience, medium, context and our research into prevailing standards in society.


While these ads drew complaints about harm and offence, 75% of our caseload is made up of complaints about misleading ads – which, in the case of upheld complaints, the ASA will also not hesitate to ban. This was the focus of most of our pro-active work during 2015. For example, they focussed on making sure broadband providers and secondary ticketing websites become more transparent in their pricing practices, while also making sure vloggers are clear with consumers when they are being advertised to through paid endorsements.


Top 10 for 2015 will no doubt get people talking about whether the ads are or aren’t offensive, but there are important issues at stake here.  Advertisers must take care not to cause serious or widespread offence, but we don’t play a number’s game.  And while matters of offence can grab the headlines, the bulk of our work is the less glamorous task of tackling misleading advertising. That’s why we’re taking a more proactive approach to address the issues which affect consumers the most before complaints need to be made.

Guy Parker, ASA Chief Executive

2015’s most complained about ads are:

money 1. Moneysupermarket.com Ltd  1,513 complaints – Not upheld

A TV and internet ad featured a man walking down a street and dancing whilst wearing denim shorts and high heeled shoes.  We received complaints that the ad was offensive.  Many complainants thought this was due to the man’s clothing and dance moves and because they believed the content was overtly sexual.  While acknowledging that some viewers might have found the ad distasteful, the ASA did not judge the ad to be offensive and in breach of the Code.

Book 2. Booking.com BV – 683 complaints – Not upheld (Following the ruling in 2015 the ASA received additional complaints about this ad)

This TV and cinema ad prompted complaints that the ad was offensive and encouraged bad language amongst children by using the word “booking” in place of a swear word.  The ASA did not uphold the complaints, judging that it was a light hearted play on words that couldn’t be mistaken for an actual swear word.  They also ruled that the ad was unlikely to encourage swearing amongst children; any children that did pick up on the joke were unlikely to have learned bad language through the ad itself.

Pay 3. Paypal (UK) Ltd – 464 complaints – Not upheld

Two children in Paypal’s Christmas ad which appeared on TV and Video-on-Demand (VOD) were worried that their parents hadn’t been shopping for Christmas Presents.  Complaints expressed concern that the ad revealed the truth about Father Christmas. The ASA did not uphold the complaints.  Independently, Paypal changed the scheduling of its commercial.

books 4. Booking.com BV – 407 complaints – Not upheld

Complainants found this TV ad featuring a man sitting on a boat before jumping off and swimming ashore, offensive due to its use of the word “booking”.  Consistent with the previous ruling, we judged that the content of the ad was a light hearted play on words that couldn’t be mistaken for an actual swear word and that the ad did not break the advertising rules.

protein-world-640x480 5. Protein World Ltd – 380 complaints – Not upheld

Before investigating complaints that a poster featuring a woman in a bikini was offensive, the ASA told Protein World that, due its ASA’s concerns about a range of health and weight loss claims, the ad could not appear again in its current form. The ASA concluded, however, that that ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

Read the Protein World ruling

Heart 6. British Heart Foundation – 219 complaints – Not upheld

The ASA received complaints about a British Heart Foundation TV, VOD and cinema ad which showed a boy sitting in a classroom talking to his dad who had died from a heart attack. Complainants considered the ad to be distressing for adults and children to see. They noted that the ad had been scheduled to not appear around children’s programming. We also recognised that some people might find the ad upsetting but judged it was unlikely to cause widespread distress.

booksss 7. Booking.com BV – 201 complaints – Not upheld

Booking.com’s TV and VOD ad showed a story of a couple who met at a hotel. Complainants thought the word “booking” in the ad had been substituted in place of a swear word and thought it was offensive.  Consistent with previous decisions, the ASA judged that the content of the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

DofH 8. Department of Health – 181 complaints – Not upheld

A TV and VOD ad, which was part of an anti-smoking campaign from Public Health England, showed a man rolling a cigarette, which had blood and flesh inside it. A poster ad also showed a cigarette which contained flesh.  The ASA received complaints that the ads were graphic and gruesome and were therefore offensive and irresponsible. The ASA acknowledged that some people might find the ads unsettling but noted that they also contained an important health message. They concluded that the ads were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

NICOcigs 9. Nicocigs Ltd – 145 complaints – Not upheld

The ASA received complaints about a TV ad for an electronic cigarette. Many objected that the advertising of e-cigarettes was allowed and many thought the ad was appealing to children.  Strict advertising rules for e-cigarettes were introduced in 2014 following a public consultation. They also noted that the ad wasn’t scheduled around programming that was likely to appeal to children and the ad’s style was not appealing to them. On that basis they judged that the ad did not break the advertising rules.

omega 10. Omega Pharma Ltd – 136 complaints – Upheld (this figure relates to 2015 complaints only, more complaints were received in 2016)

A TV, YouTube and VOD ad for XLS Medical, a slimming aid, featured two women exchanging text messages before heading on holiday.  After seeing a photo of her friend who had lost weight, the other woman in the ad was unhappy about not being able to fit into her holiday wardrobe. The ASA banned the ad because it presented an irresponsible approach to body image and confidence. Read the Omega Pharma ruling


Source: ASA


Number of complaints in summary:



The ASA is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media. They apply the Advertising Codes, which are written by the Committees of Advertising Practice. Their work includes acting on complaints and proactively checking the media to take action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements.


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