Advertising rules state that marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence and specifies that particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of: age; disability; gender; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.
Religion and belief are potentially extremely sensitive subjects. References to religion in marketing communications, even humorous ones, have the capacity to cause serious offence. Marketers should ensure that they consider carefully the tone used and, if necessary, research the likelihood of marketing communications causing serious or widespread offence to followers of the faiths concerned.
- Take care when using humour
Whilst the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) appreciates that it is not generally the advertiser’s intention to offend, it will consider how viewers are likely interpret the ad, rather than the advertiser’s intention. Light-hearted depictions may sometimes be acceptable; however, humour does not in itself prevent an ad from being likely to cause offence, and humour which is derived from religion or belief is often likely to be offensive.
It is quite common for the ASA to receive complaints about religious beliefs being depicted in a humorous way in ads during important events in religious calendars. For example, Christian imagery in and around Christmas and Easter. The ASA chose not to uphold complaints about fashion ads seen around Christmas that showed a man giving a woman a Mulberry handbag as a gift in scenes reminiscent of the Christmas Nativity story. It considered most viewers would understand it as a light hearted take on the Nativity story, intended to comment on the effect of consumerism on Christmas rather than mocking or denigrating Christian belief (Mulberry Company (Sales) Ltd, 23 December 2015). In contrast, an ad for a sex toy sold around Easter 2017 was considered likely to cause offence on the grounds of religion because it included the double entendre “res-erection” and the text “Sinful Sunday”, playing on the religious prominence of the Easter holiday (Honey Birdette (UK) Ltd, 12 July 2017).
Gentle humour may be acceptable when reflecting mainstream culture if religious references have passed into mainstream culture more generally. In 2014 the ASA received complaints that a Christmas themed ad referring to “all our stupid songs” was likely to cause offence because it mocked carol singing, an element of Christian worship. The ASA did not uphold the complaints, noting that the activity was part of British Christmas tradition, followed by both Christians and non-Christians alike (Kentucky Fried Chicken (Great Britain) Ltd, 5 March 2014).
The ASA did not uphold complaints about an ad for Salesforce, which featured a woman levitating in the lotus position, saying the name “Tom” with a long ‘Om’ sound. Complainants were concerned that some people may have found the depiction of meditation and the use of the ‘Om’ sound offensive. However, the ASA considered that viewers would be likely to interpret it as a humorous representation of meditation practices which were widely associated with non-religious wellness or mindfulness techniques, and would be unlikely to find the use of the elongated ‘Om’ sound to mimic or mock a specific spiritual practice (Salesforce UK Ltd, 6 October 2021).
- Using religious imagery or language
The use of religious imagery or language may be considered acceptable, provided it is not mocking or disrespectful. A complaint about an ad for an album which featured an image reminiscent of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a revered icon of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Christian faith, with the face of a snarling dog was not upheld, because the image was not considered mocking or denigratory towards the Madonna or the Christian faith in general (SharpTone Records, 4 July 2018). In contrast, an ad which featured an image of a crucifixion, with cartoon style imagery of blood dripping from a hand pierced by a nail alongside the text “nailed on bonus”, “dearly departed JC” and “sacrilecious [sic] bonus” was considered likely to cause offence, particularly to those of the Christian faith to whom the image would have a particularly strong resonance (Boylesports Enterprise, 18 May 2016).
Using religious imagery to advertise products or themes contrary to central or sensitive religious beliefs is likely to be problematic. The ASA upheld complaints about an ad for a music album, which included the headline “HOLY FVCK”, and featured the artist bound up in a bondage-style outfit whilst lying on a mattress shaped like a crucifix, with her legs bound to one side, reminiscent of Christ on the cross. The ASA considered that this was likely to be viewed as linking sexuality to the sacred symbol of the crucifix and the crucifixion, and was likely to cause serious offence to Christians. The ad was also considered irresponsibly targeted because it referred to a swear word that many would find offensive, and had appeared in an untargeted medium and public place where children were likely to see it (Universal Music Operations Ltd, January 2023). In 2006, the ASA considered that changing an image of The Last Supper to show Jesus in a casino and his apostles playing roulette was likely to offend (Paddy Power, 11 January 2006). Similarly an ad for the morning after pill, placed in the run up to Christmas, which included the heading “Immaculate Contraception?” generated over 180 complaints and was considered liekly to cause serious offence, by mis-using a fundamental Catholic belief (Schering Health Care Ltd, 22 December 2004).
- Don’t make offensive generalisations
Whilst it is acceptable to present beliefs and challenge others in advertising, this should not be done in a way which could ridicule or demean any religions or beliefs. Objective claims made in relation to religion or belief must not mislead. A national press ad for the Gay Police Association highlighted homophobic incidents where the sole or primary motivating factor was the religious belief of the perpetrator, and stated “in the name of the father”, showing a photograph of a Bible next to a pool of blood. Complainants believed the ad implied that Christians were the perpetrators of the reported incidents and that all Christians shared these views. The ASA agreed that this message was likely to offend Christian readers, and was misleading (Gay Police Association, 18 October 2006).
- Read the Advertising Guidance for further advice
Although religious offence accounts for few complaints to the ASA, the offence caused can be very serious. Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has issued Advertising Guidance on how to avoid causing religious offence, which covers these topics:
- The sacred: aspects of religion that are so sacred their depiction is likely to break the Code
- Christianity and common culture: tolerance that extends to the use of Christian images and words
- Non-Christian faiths: the need for greater sensitivity towards minority faiths
- Language: ecclesiastical language and what might or might not offend
- Sex and Religion: the use of sexualised images
- Location, context, timing and media: where and when to avoid advertising, for example posters showing nudity close to places of worship
- Relevance of the product
- Humour: whether humour gets round offence
- Cause-related advertising: is it acceptable for charities and good causes to use religious images to generate interest?
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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