Due to the varied and potentially fantastical nature of film and TV advertising, the ASA sees large numbers of complaints for ads in this sector. Marketers are encouraged to see Entertainment: General guidance which details the most common subjects and pitfalls in this area.
Marketers should also be mindful that the public’s sensitivity can shift over time and with current events, and film and TV ads are often particularly affected by changing societal views.
- Violence and Sex
Violent and sexual elements are not inherently problematic in entertainment ads, but marketers should be mindful of how these elements are portrayed. For instance, condoning or glamorising violence is unlikely to be acceptable.
In addition, marketers need to be careful about the inclusion of sexual imagery or references to sex in ads. Many sexual images are likely to be considered inappropriate for placement in a media which is likely to be seen by children. Targeting is key; marketers can reflect the violent or sexual content of films and TV in advertising as long as it is appropriate for the target audience.
For instance, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint about an internet display ad for the film “I Love You, Man” that contained claims like “He goes down on you like six times a week…” and “[sometimes I wish that she enjoyed…] getting it in the tush” because it considered the sexual themes were likely to offend some users and were unsuitable for children, and because Yahoo! (on whose homepage the ad appeared) had not protected children from seeing the ad (Paramount Pictures UK, 8 July 2009).
Conversely, in 2013, the ASA did not uphold complaints about a horror film poster, noting that while some might find it distasteful, it did not show images of interpersonal violence, and did not show the depicted chainsaw being used as a weapon (Lions Gate UK Ltd, 24 April 2013.)
TV and film ads that show images of weapons should ensure that they do not condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour by depicting or glamourising weapons or violence. In addition, ads must not feature weapons in a manner which could cause unjustifiable fear or distress.
Marketers should be aware of how the weapon is positioned. Guns or other weapons pointing towards the audience, or guns which have just been fired, may be considered threatening and likely to cause fear or distress, depending on the context in which they appear.
In rejecting complaints about a poster for the TV series “Dexter”, the ASA took into account the fact that the knife was not being used in a threatening manner, was not aimed at another character or reader and was not bloodstained. (Fox International Channels UK Ltd, 9 January 2008). Even if a weapon is shown pointing away from the reader, advertisements featuring prominent shots of guns or guns being brandished in an aggressive manner are likely to be unacceptable (Entertainment Film Distributors Ltd, 21 November 2007).
- Irresponsible Behaviour, Drugs and Alcohol
Any marketers wishing to depict potentially irresponsible and anti-social behaviour, such as speeding, graffitiing or vandalism, are reminded that whilst this is not prohibited, the ad should not glorify nor encourage this behaviour by, for instance, showing it in a positive light or having it carried out by an aspirational character.
Marketers should avoid ads which depict characters smoking tobacco/cigarettes as these elements might be considered socially irresponsible. Generally, marketers should not show nor imply that smoking is any way glamorous or aspirational or is going to enhance smokers sexually, socially or physically.
Ads which feature alcohol will be subject to the rules in Section 18: Alcohol, and marketers should consider the rules in this area before featuring alcohol in their ads. For instance, ads must contain nothing that is likely to lead people to adopt styles of drinking that are unwise, must not link alcohol with activities or locations in which drinking would be unwise, show anyone who is, or appears to be, under 25 drinking or playing a significant role, and must not be likely to appeal particularly to anyone under 18. See Alcohol: General for an overview, and Alcohol: Targeting for how to target the ad appropriately.
- Fear and Distress
The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code states that marketing communications should not cause unjustifiable fear or distress.
Gory or frightening images may be relevant when advertising horror films or TV shows about (for instance) a distressing historical event, but advertisers should ensure that the images are not too extreme and are suitably targeted.
In 2012, an ad for a zombie film, shown before a trailer for PG film, was deemed too graphic to be shown in untargeted media due to shots of a man pushing a blender into a zombie’s mouth and someone else cutting into a zombie’s head (Entertainment One UK Ltd, 19 December 2012).
Similarly, two digital outdoor ads for Alien: Covenant, which featured an alien mouth exploding from an egg towards the viewer, characters in great distress and the words “RUN”, “HIDE”, “SCREAM” and “PRAY”, were considered problematic in an untargeted public medium (Twentieth Century Fox Film Company Ltd, 16 August 2017).
In 2017, the ASA also investigated two Youtube pre-roll ads for the film Insidious: The Last Key, which were seen before videos about Lego, Disney’s Frozen and Minecraft. The ads featured scenes such as a clawed hand, a woman in a hospital bed screaming and a humanoid figure leaping out at a character. Not only did the ASA find that the ads were too scary to be placed before videos likely to appeal to children, but it also considered that, when placed before completely unrelated videos devoid of any horror/frightening subjects, the ads might also cause unjustifiable distress to some adults (Sony Pictures Releasing UK, 13 June 2018).
In contrast, the ASA also investigated a bus poster ad for the film Pet Sematary, as they received complaints that the film’s strapline, “Sometimes dead is better” was distressing and encouraged suicide. Whilst the ASA accepted that the ad may cause a degree of distress to those who were recently bereaved, it did not think the ad caused widespread nor excessive distress, nor considered the ad irresponsible (Paramount Pictures UK, 17 July 2019).
The ASA also did not uphold complaints about an internet banner ad for a film containing a blood-splattered image of a woman hanging upside down and the text “Don’t look here. It’s torture” because it had appeared on a website targeted at an adult audience, who would understand that the ad reflected the content of the film (Sony Pictures Releasing UK, 10 October 2007).
Again, targeting is key – see below for more on targeting, and Fear & Distress guidance.
- Targeting and Children
Consideration of targeting is fundamental for film and TV ads. Elements such as graphic violence, sex, scary, distressing content or those for or featuring age-restricted products (such as alcohol) all need to be targeted appropriately.
In 2022, the ASA investigated poster ads for the horror film “Black Phone”. The ASA noted that the ads featured the image of a person wearing a top hat and glasses with a grey face and hair. The person was wearing a grey mask which covered half their face, and depicted a broad malevolent grin with lots of teeth with tagline “Never talk to strangers”. In determining whether the poster was too scary for children, the ASA considered that whilst the character had a sinister appearance, there was no overtly bloody, gory or threatening imagery, and the tag line was not distressing in and of itself. It therefore did not consider that the ad would cause excessive fear and distress (Universal Pictures International UK & Eire Ltd, 31 August 2022).
The ASA also investigated a TV ad for the film “Venom: Let There Be Carnage”, which featured shots of a man morphing into a creature. The ASA noted that the ad did contain scenes of mild violence, which some children might have found unsettling or scary. However, because Clearcast had placed a scheduling restriction on the ad that prevented it from being shown in or adjacent to children’s programmes or before 7:30pm, the ad was unlikely to be seen by young children, and therefore did not breach the Code (Columbia Pictures Corporation Ltd, 9 March 2022).
In contrast, in 2020, the ASA upheld a Spotify ad for film “It: Chapter Two” because it was heard in between songs on a ‘Classical Lullabies’ playlist – a playlist that the ASA considered was primarily designed for young children (Warner Bros. Entertainment UK Ltd, 11 March 2020).
In addition, and in contrast to the poster ad for the same campaign as mentioned above, the ASA also investigated a YouTube pre-roll ad for the film “Pet Sematary”. The ad featured multiple scary scenes, such as a person with a serious facial injury, a boy with a protruding spine and shoulder blades crawling across the floor, and lots of scenes featuring sharp objects and blood. Crucially, the ad had played before videos about the game Fortnite. The advertiser stated that they had used age-gating tools when targeting the ad – for instance, they had made sure the ad wouldn’t play before videos that featured things like “toys”, “cartoons”, “comics”, “animated films”, “crafts”, “superhero films” and “family-oriented games and activities”. In addition, only adult users logged into their YouTube account aged between 18-54 would be served the ad. However, the ASA noted that the game Fortnite was likely to appeal to younger people, and the specific channels the videos featured on also would have appealed particularly. As the steps the advertiser had taken had therefore been insufficient, the complaints were upheld (Paramount Pictures International, 30 October 2019).
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 Advertising Standards Authority.
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