Ads for contraceptives and related products are often complained about on the grounds that the product is offensive or inappropriate. While the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code states that ads should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, the fact that a product is offensive to some is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of rule 4.1.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) will always consider the particular content and context when judging offence – but they will not comment on the nature of the products advertised. As such, although complaints may be numerous, formal rulings in this area are less so.
Don’t be excessively explicit about sexual activity
Contraceptives are inextricably linked to sexual activity and the ASA does consider it reasonable to refer to sex when advertising contraceptives. However, an excessively explicit approach is nevertheless likely to cause serious or widespread offence, particularly if not targeted appropriately.
A poster campaign that spelled out the words “Ejaculater” and “Roger More” in inflated condoms and another that showed men’s and women’s faces in the throes of orgasmic ecstasy and invited consumers to “Come online & Play THE SEX ORGAN” were deemed unsuitable for untargeted outdoor media, not least because they could be seen by children (SSL International plc, 21 May 2003 and 4 June 2003, Carter Products Ltd, 13 October 2004).
On the other hand, two posters that partially showed reclining women in their underwear talking about sex and the claims “Love sex. Hate condoms. Love SKYN” and “Roll on better sex… revolutionise your sex life”, were ruled to be acceptable. The overall tone of the ads was not considered provocative and the advertiser had ensured a placement restriction was applied – they were not placed within 100 metres of schools (Ansell UK Ltd, 2 May 2012).
Similarly, ads for condom accessories such as massage mousse and ‘orgasmic gel’, which made claims such as “Let’s hear you scream” and “Make some noise for the boys”, were considered acceptable because they were not sexually explicit. In addition, their placement on poster sites near venues hosting Take That concerts that the advertiser was sponsoring, was seen to reinforce a play on words related to a typical audience reaction to popular artists. The ASA also considered that any reference to sexual activity implied by the messages was unlikely to be understood by young children, so was unlikely to cause harm to them (SSL International plc, 28 October 2009).
Take care not to trivialise surrounding issues
Marketers should ensure that their advertising does not offend by seeming to trivialise the issues surrounding the use of contraception. A cartoon-style ad for an emergency contraceptive, received complaints on the grounds that it trivialised the issue of unprotected sex. The ASA took into account the fact that the product had clearly been positioned as something to be used after a contraceptive mishap and that the way the woman was portrayed suggested that the situation was not trivial to her, and did not uphold the complaints (Bayer Plc, 15 July 2009).
A light-hearted and humorous approach is not necessarily likely to be seen as trivialising surrounding issues. Government bodies and charities often use tongue-in-cheek humour in campaigns encouraging the use of contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It is unlikely that the ASA would find such an approach, when used to communicate important and hard-to-address subjects like this, in breach of the Code.
Be cautious about references to religion
Marketers should avoid direct references to religion in ads for contraception, even if their intention is humorous. An advertisement, for an emergency contraceptive, that used the headline “Immaculate contraception?” was ruled against because the conflict with Catholic religious dogma was considered likely to cause serious or widespread offence (Schering Health Care Ltd, 22 December 2004).
Similarly, a leaflet featuring the Pope wearing a hard hat with the strap line “The Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom” was judged to be offensive, in particular to Roman Catholics. 1,192 complainants had objected that it undermined the teachings of the Catholic Church on contraception and ridiculed the Ten Commandments. Whilst noting that the leaflet was intended to raise awareness for National Condom Week and to promote safe sex, the ASA agreed with the objections and asked the advertisers to withdraw the leaflet (British Safety Council, 8 August 1995).
Target your ads appropriately
Marketers should take care with references to sex and any accompanying imagery in untargeted outdoor media that could be seen by children.
They should also ensure that they target consumers very carefully when sending out direct marketing material promoting contraceptives. A business mailing that included a free condom was found to breach the Code because it was likely to seriously offend individuals who opened the mailing (The Works (UK) Ltd, 24 April 2002).
However, a mailing that had advertised, but did not include, a contraceptive device was considered to be acceptable because the tone and wording of the mailing was sensitive and the marketers had taken every precaution to ensure that it had been carefully targeted (Unipath Ltd, 8 March 2000).
Be careful when referring to contraceptives in ads for other products
Images of condoms or references to contraception in ads for other products can be acceptable. An ad for a car, appearing in the sports section of a national newspaper, which pictured five unused, wrapped condoms alongside the slogan “Perform Safely” was judged to be acceptable (Seat UK, 16 March 2005).
Conversely, a magazine insert which showed an image of an unravelled condom and the claim “Orgies … Operational recovery guaranteed in every situation”, was considered to be in breach the Code (Advanced Group, 2 August 2006).
Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the ASA.
CAP’s Advice Online entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.
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