Offence: Death

May 14th '24

No matter how sensitively it is handled, the topic of death nearly always generates complaints. The public tends to be more sympathetic if the depiction of death is relevant to the product (such as funeral homes, life insurance or smoke alarms) or the message (charity appeals)..  The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) did not uphold complaints about a depiction of a dead cat in an ad for an animal welfare charity (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation, 23 August 2023) acknowledging that some viewers might find it unsettling but that they would understand that the ad aimed to challenge societal norms. Companies that use or refer to death gratuitously, however, especially in badly-targeted media, are in danger of causing serious or widespread offence. Marketers should also be mindful that, not only do they risk offending readers but causing fear or distress.


  • General references

Sometimes a reference to death or killing is included only to create shock value.  The ASA investigated an email ad for a live post-mortem event that stated “If you’re dating tonight be sensible and make sure you’re spending the night with a partner, [sic] you trust” together with an image of the serisal killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The killer’s inclusion was unconnected the the event advertised. The ASA considered that flippant approach associated dating on Valentine’s Day with Dahmer and had the effect of trivialising his criminal acts and the murders he committed.  (ITAE Productions Ltd, 5 July 2023)


Similarly, an insurance company placed ads on social media featuring the convicted serial killer Harold Shipman alongside the strapline “Life insurance to die for”.  The ASA considered that the ads trivialised the murders committed by Harold Shipman and were likely to cause serious and widespread offence.  Furthermore, referring to the murderer is any way in advertising material was likely to be distressing, especially to those personally affected by the murders.  That distress was unjustified and the ads were found to be irresponsible and offensive (DeadHappy Ltd,15 February 2023)


Not all references to death will distress or offend.  The ASA investigated complaints about a poster advertising the film ‘Pet Sematary’.  It considered that it was clear from the placement, prominence and context of the text “Sometimes dead is better” that it was a strapline for a horror movie and concluded that the ad had been prepared with a sense of responsibility, and did not encourage or condone suicide, (Paramount Pictures UK 17 July 2019)


  • Targeting and audience

Sometimes what’s acceptable for one audience, might distress or offend another. The ASA investigated another life insurance ad which appeared on Cartoon Network during episodes of ‘The Amazing World of Gumball’ and ‘ThunderCats Roar!’. The ad showed a mother playing with her two young children. It described a scenario in which the mother had been diagnosed with serious illness and appealed to mothers to protect their children financially in the even of their mother’s death. The ASA considered the ad could be distressing to young children, but that it would be suitable for older children to see. The ad therefore needed to be sensitively scheduled. Viewers were unlikely to expect to see ads which could distress young children, especially at 8am when children could be watching by themselves. (Turner Broadcasting System Europe Ltd, 4 August 2021) See also Targeting.


  • Use of imagery

Even if an ad reflects the nature of the advertised product or service, advertisers should be aware that the use of graphic images can cause serious offence. A magazine insert, for a cleaning firm specialising in dealing with undiscovered deaths, showed the outline of a human form made from the residue of a decomposing body; the ad prompted complaints that the images were excessively graphic, offensive and distressing. Although the advertiser argued it was an accurate portrayal of the work undertaken, the ASA concluded that the ad was unacceptable in an untargeted medium (Clearway Environmental Services (UK) Ltd, 25 July 2007). See also Fear and Distress.


  • References to suicide

Advertisers should take particular care if they refer to or highlight the issue of suicide.  In 2019 the ASA upheld complaints that an ad for life insurance was irresponsible because it trivialised the issue of suicide and, by referring to it, was likely to cause serious offence, particularly to those who had been affected by suicide. (DeadHappy Ltd, 1 December 2019).


If an ad aims to raise awareness around suicide, and offer support to those affected, the ASA will take account of this when considering complaints.  It concluded that, although a campaigning ad was likely to be distressing for some people, its overall message encouraged looking beyond the surface to save lives from suicide.  This meant that any distress caused was justified by the ad’s message. (Campaign Against Living Miserably, 5 October 2022). See also Mental Health: Depicting mental health conditions and Mental Health: Suicide.


  • References to the recently deceased

References to the recently deceased should be used with caution. In 2009 the ASA upheld a complaint about an ad for ski helmets that referred to the very recent death of an actress in a skiing accident (The Ski & Outdoor Warehouse Ltd, 13 May 2009). However the ASA rejected complaints about ads for t-shirts celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher. It noted that the ad clearly linked the nature and purpose of the T-shirt to the actions of Baroness Thatcher during her time as Prime Minister, and that the ads were targeted at customers who had previously bought ‘left of centre’ merchandise (Philosophy Football, 29 May 2013). In this context the ASA considered the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.


Source: 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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