Fear and distress in advertising

Oct 31st '19

Spoiling for a fright – Fear and distress.

Halloween’s upon us, which means there are certain situations that call for a right good scare or spine-tingling chill.  But when it comes to advertising, it’s really not OK to cause unjustified fear or distress to your audience.


If you’re thinking about an ad campaign that has the potential to startle, frighten or downright scare the pants off people, take a step back and read Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) guidance to help avoid the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) creeping up on you.


  • Safety first

Products or services that deal with safety may need to talk about the danger that it’s trying to safeguard against.  Some small amount of potential fear or distress may be justifiable in this context; but it must not be excessive.


It may sound obvious, but you’ll need to hold evidence to back up any claims that you make and not exaggerate any potential risks.  This direct mailing for a burglar alarm system claimed that there had recently been criminal activity in the local area, however the ASA hadn’t seen any evidence to show that this was actually the case.  It’s also worth making sure that the evidence you have is sufficiently robust – hearsay and anecdotal evidence is unlikely to cut it.


It doesn’t help either if an ad doesn’t really look like an ad.  A leaflet that took the form of a parking notice crossed the  line and was just too reminiscent of an official document.  Every ad should be obviously identifiable as such, however the impact of not doing so is particularly felt when addressing matters of health.  A direct mailing for a health screening, while also suggesting that recipients could have life-threatening illnesses without knowing it, caused confusion by giving the overall impression that it related to an existing health appointment.


  • Emotion is key

Ads sometimes deal with hard-hitting and upsetting themes while others aim to raise awareness on particular issues.  However, if care is taken in the execution and targeting, then it’s likely that any potential distress will be justified.


Quite often the message being portrayed will go some way to ensuring that distress is justified.  Ads about Alzheimer’s, honour killings and an ad for a women’s welfare charity all highlighted difficult issues that were likely to be distressing to some, but were ultimately addressed  in such a way as to not cause unjustifiable distress.  However, care will still need to be taken to ensure that ads are not excessive in their portrayal.


In other news, this advertorial for personal alarms that took the form of a news article went into some detail about an alleged kidnapping and while the ASA recognised that the product was intended for personal safety, the emotive language that was used and how it was communicated didn’t justify any distress that it may have caused.  Playing on fears and exaggerating the negative effects of other products should also be avoided.


  • Surely everyone’s entitled to one good scare?

Not really when it comes to advertising, but there are some products that do need to hint at their potential scariness in order to attract their target audience.  So if you have a horror movie to promote and want to be plain ol’ scary, just be careful not to go full-on Regan MacNeil and spew your creative guts all over the harm and offence rules.


An alien mouth exploding from an egg towards the viewer in an outdoor digital ad or a grinning creature with fanged teeth before ‘kids’ videos on YouTube?  Bit too much.  Some dismembered body parts and a severed head on TV before 9pm or pushing an industrial hand blender into a zombie’s mouth on a film news website?  Likewise.  As these examples show, care should be taken to place and target ads appropriately – and the scarier it is, the more careful you’ll need to be.


Not promoting a horror film but still looking to pack in that horror film feeling?  That’s fine, but make sure it’s more ‘12A’ than ‘18’ – if it’s too gory it’s likely to be a problem.  It’s useful to remember that what may be ok for adults to see might not be ok for children and that what might be suitable for older children might distress younger children.


Source: CAP


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