Fear and distress

May 1st '24

Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers should not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention.


  • Encouraging Prudent Behaviour

An appeal to fear to encourage prudent behaviour or to discourage dangerous or ill-advised actions may be considered justifiable; however, the fear likely to be aroused should not be excessive.


In 2023 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld complaints about ads for a food supplement that claimed it could treat or prevent memory loss and associated medical conditions.  As well as ruling that the factual claims in the ads breached the Code, the ASA considered that the ads’ references to time running out and to the limited availability of the product, together with the tone of the language in the ads, conveyed a sense of urgency to act quickly to prevent Alzheimer’s disease by purchasing the advertised product, which contributed to the sense of fear and distress that the ads were likely to cause.  In addition, encouraging readers to self-assess for generic symptoms they were likely to have experienced at some point, in association with testing for Alzheimer’s disease, was also likely to cause fear and distress.


They concluded that the level of fear and distress the ads were likely to cause to some readers was not justifiable. (Direct Response Marketing Group Ltd September 2023)


In 2019, complaints that a mailing highlighting the risks for companies of not setting up work place pensions for their employees was threatening and distressing were not upheld.  The ASA concluded that because it was a legal requirement for businesses to enrol their employees into a pension and the consequences of failing to do so could result in the sanctions outlined in the ad, the distress the ad might cause was justified. (Smart Pension Ltd February 2019)


Marketers should avoid exaggerating the potential risks caused by not buying their products, especially if targeting the elderly or vulnerable. In 2022 the ASA upheld a complaint against an ad for health insurance that stated “There are more patients for the NHS to treat than ever before, and the system is at breaking point. This means you simply can’t be guaranteed the treatment you need in good time, and any condition you have now could quickly worsen. “. It considered that, because the ad particularly focused on worst-case scenarios in terms of the risks not having access to private health services through insurance, such as the worsening of serious medical conditions and also included absolute claims about the NHS such as “the system is at breaking point” and “The NHS is struggling” without providing further detail or explanation the ad suggested that NHS care was unlikely to be available if needed, and in doing so was likely to cause fear. (Pelham Health Ltd 9 November 2022).


However, an ad for fire safety products that included the claims “Ever seen a fire, like a proper fire? One that engulfs the room, hits 800 degrees and kicks out thick black smoke. Ever had to crawl out of the house on all fours, fearing for your life, or throw your mattress out the bedroom window so it’ll break your fall because you can’t get out down the stairs? Or ever seen the ruin that a fire leaves behind? The shell of what was your home. Your favourite furniture reduced to blackened carcasses. Ever thought of your most treasured items up in flames? Photos, trinkets, gifts. Ever lost all those memories? Ever lost a pet? Ever lost a loved one?“ was deemed acceptable.  Although the ASA considered that some viewers would find the ad distressing, this was justified given the product being advertised It concluded that the ad was unlikely to cause excessive fear or distress.  (LifeSafe Technologies Ltd 3 August 2022).  See also Social Responsibility.


  • Charity and Public Awareness Campaigns

The ASA has accepted that certain distressing approaches are justified in campaigns to raise public awareness of a social issue or challenge societal norms. For example, although the ASA acknowledged that the image of a dead cat could be distasteful or unsettling, it was not gruesome and was therefore unlikely to cause distress. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation 23 August 2023).


However, even when advertisers intend their ads to challenge, they must take care to ensure that the imagery they use is not so graphic that it is likely to cause distress.  In 2023 the ASA upheld complaints about an ad for a vegan charity that was intended as a parody of yoghurt advertising and aimed to highlight the hypocrisy of dairy companies.  A woman was shown eating the blood and offal whilst smiling, with blood dripping from her mouth and teeth. Although the ASA acknowledged people would understand the ad was intended as a comment on animal welfare, the graphic and gory imagery was nevertheless likely to shock and cause a sense of disgust.  It concluded that the distress the ad was likely to cause, particularly to children, was unjustified.


Complaints about the content and targeting of an ad placed by a cosmetics company that highlighted the effect of social media use on mental health were also not upheld. The ASA considered that the overall aim of the ads was to raise awareness of the impact social media could have and that there was support available.  The ads did not encourage or condone harmful behaviour, although they might be difficult for members of the wider public to watch. The overall message of the ads was to raise awareness of the impact social media could have and that there was support available to give hope that recovery was possible for those affected by eating disorders or insecurities around their body image. We considered the ads were unlikely to encourage or be understood as condoning harmful behaviour, although they might be difficult for members of the public to watch (Unilever UK Ltd 8 November 2023).


See also: Social responsibility: Body image


Sometimes ads can cause distress by challenging societal norms in new ways.  The ASA investigated complaints that an ad for period products described and seemed to show menstrual blood and used sanitary pads and tampons. It noted that the scheduling restriction applied to the TV ad meant that it was unlikely to be seen by children but that many children would be familiar with and understand that blood associated with menstruation was normalThe ad was found not to breach the Codes (Wuka Ltd 19 July 2023).


That said, advertisers in these sectors or others that champion a cause should still be cautious when using hard hitting material. Also in 2023, the ASA upheld complaints about a social media ad campaign for a vegan charity.  It included graphic and gory imagery and language which was likely to frighten and distress those who saw it, particularly children.


  • Ads featuring children

If the marketing communication is in a medium likely to be seen by children, or if it features children, particular care should be taken.  The ASA upheld a complaint about in-game ads for a mobile app game that featured an animation of a child injuring themselves on and sharp spring and another that showed a child tearing skin of their finger causing it to bleed.  It concluded that, although the characters featured were computer animated, the depiction of their injuries was graphic and one ad included a close-up depiction of a child self-harming the ads were likely to offend and distress. (Fuero Games Sp zoo February 2023).


See also Children: Targeting


  • Horror and gore

Complaints about a poster toa horror themed Halloween event were upheld by the ASA because the advertiser had not taken care to ensure that children would not see marketing that was likely to cause them fear or distress. (Norfolk Dinosaur Park Ltd November 2023)


Sometimes, although images might be shocking or unexpected, they are justified if they are relevant to the product advertised.  In 2023 the ASA investigated complaints about period pants that included shots of different period underwear, blood and blood clots in a shower.  It acknowledged that some viewers had been distressed by the ad, but considered that, although unconventional, in the context of a period productthe blood and blood clots were a realistic and accurate depiction of consumers’ menstruation experiences. (Wuka Ltd 19 July 2023)


Gory or frightening images may be relevant when advertising horror films or literature, but advertisers should ensure that the images are not too extreme and are suitably targeted. The ASA has upheld against ads for the horror film evil dead rise that that featured images from the film (Studiocanal Ltd 15 November 2023)


Special care should be taken in mediums that may be viewed by children (see above).


A distressing radio ad for Crimestoppers was considered justified and appropriately targeted in 2021 (Crimestoppers Trust July 2021). But complaints about an ad on YouTube for a horror film were upheld on the basis that they would distress children because the appeared alongside videos that would appeal to them. (Paramount Pictures International October 2019)


Complaints about an embedded ad in a YouTube video were upheld because they appeared to portray genuine aggression and violence which included smashing a glass over a person’s head that was likely to cause shock and distress to viewers. The ASA considered that the nature of those particular scenes and the level of violence were not justified. (Surfshark B.V. January 2023)


See Entertainment: GeneralChildren: TargetingViolence: Condoning or encouraging for more on this topic.


  • Death

The ASA upheld complaints about a life insurance company that included an image of the serial murderer, Harold Shipman, a British doctor who it is estimated murdered between 215 and 260 of his patients.  It ruled that any reference to the murderer in advertising material was likely to be distressing, particularly for those who had lost family members or friends at Shipman’s hands. In the context of an ad promoting life insurance, this distress was unjustified (DeadHappy Ltd February 2023).


In 2022, complaints about an ad that raised awareness of suicide were not upheld. The ASA ruled that, although the ad was likely to be distressing to some viewers, the overall message of the ad to look beyond the surface to save lives from suicide and seek support to facilitate that, meant that any distress caused was justified by the ad’s message. (Campaign Against Living Miserably October 2022)


Source: Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP)


About CAP

The CAP is the sister organisation of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and is responsible for writing the Advertising Codes.


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 AdviceOnline entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.


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