Social Responsibility

Dec 19th '18

All marketing communications should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society. Marketers should not use approaches that are likely to encourage socially irresponsible behaviour. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld complaints about social responsibility against a diverse range of marketing communications. Some decisions have centred on unsafe, irresponsible or illegal acts being depicted, condoned or encouraged. In some cases ads can be considered irresponsible because they are not targeted and violent or sexual content is placed in media where it is likely to be seen by children.


Social responsibility covers many things, and some sections of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code have a specific rule concerning social responsibility in a certain sector. The following topics and issues should be considered to ensure that advertising is not socially irresponsible.


  • Alcohol

Ads for or featuring alcohol must be socially responsible and must not contain anything which is likely to encourage unwise drinking styles, or encourage excessive drinking (rule 18.1).


A facebook ad for a bottomless prosecco event which stated “Buddha Bottomless Brunch includes unlimited Prosecco!” alongside an image of an overflowing prosecco glass tower was considered in breach by the ASA, who ruled that the ad placed undue emphasis on the bottomless prosecco element of the offer, suggested an abundance of free-flowing alcohol and glamorised the prosecco element (Buddha Lounge Tynemouth, 08 August 2018).


  • Drugs

The ASA usually takes a strict line on explicit references to drugs. Ads should not condone or encourage drug use. Even if an ad does not actively encourage drug use featuring drugs in ads without actively condemning their use is likely to be seen as encouraging apathy towards drugs and as such irresponsible.


An ad which featured an image of a full hypodermic syringe and needle and stated “… the weekly fix… Inject some fun into your life…” was considered likely to imply recreational and illegal drug use and judged to be irresponsible and offensive in breach of the Code (ICA t/a, 6 August 2014).


  • Tobacco

Smoking should not be presented in an appealing manner, condoned, or encouraged.  The ASA upheld complaints about a Facebook ad for a mobile phone case with an inbuilt cigarette lighter which featured a close-up image of a cigarette being lit and text which stated “TAG SOMEONE WHO CAN USE THIS” because they considered the combination of the image of the lit cigarette and the encouragement to “TAG SOMEONE WHO CAN USE THIS” presented smoking in a positive light, normalised and condoned smoking and presented it in an appealing manner (Lightercase Inc, 11 March 2015).


  • Gambling

The CAP Code requires that all gambling advertising is socially responsible and advertisers should ensure they respect the need to protect children, young persons and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by advertising that features or promotes gambling (Rule 16.1).


  • Motoring

Marketing communications should not encourage motorists to drive irresponsibly or break the law (Rule 19.3); (Jaguar Land Rover Ltd, 25 June 2014) or depict vehicles in dangerous or unwise situations in a way that might encourage irresponsible driving (Rule 19.2).


  • Body image

Advertisers should ensure that they don’t portray particular body types in an irresponsible manner, imply people can only be happy if they look a certain way, or present an unhealthy body image as aspirational.


An ad for breast enlargement surgery was ruled against on the grounds that the ad exploited young women’s insecurities about their bodies, trivialised breast enhancement surgery and portrayed it as aspirational (MYA Cosmetic Surgery Ltd, 17 October 2018).


  • Children and targeting

Marketing communications addressed to or featuring children should contain nothing that is likely to result in their physical, mental or moral harm and should not exploit their credulity, loyalty, vulnerability or lack of experience (rule 5.1).


There are specific rules surrounding the targeting of ads for age-restricted products such as alcohol, gambling, lotteries HFSS bards and e-cigarettes. As well as considering these rules advertisers must ensure that sexual, violent or other graphic content which may cause fear or distress is targeted appropriately. A complaint about an ad for an adult chat line which appeared on the back of a paper and featured images of partially nude women was upheld because the ASA considered that as the content was on the outside of a paper it could be seen by children (Digital Media Ltd t/a Luv2Chat, 21 September 2016).


Ads should not depict children taking part in unsafe activities and children should never be shown in a sexualised way. Symbols of youth, such as school uniforms, will also be unacceptable if used in a sexual context. (See Nobody’s Child Ltd, 30 March 2016, and American Apparel (UK) Ltd, 18 March 2015).


  • Objectification

Ads are likely to be considered irresponsible if they objectify the people in the ad. Using models in a sexual way where this has no relation to the product is likely to be problematic, as is focussing on model’s bodies while obscuring their faces. A complaint about a VOD ad for femfresh bikini line products was upheld by the ASA for being overly sexualised in a way that objectified women, because the ad featured sexualised dance moves, the clothes were revealing and the ad focused on the women’s crotches with relatively few shots of their faces (Church & Dwight UK Ltd t/a Femfresh, 12 July 2017).


  • Violence

Ads should not condone, encourage or trivialise violence or anti-social behaviour.


A complaint about an ad for the George Pub and Grill which stated “WOULD YOU PUNCH YOUR EX IN THE FACE FOR A PARMO?” was upheld by the ASA who considered that referring to domestic violence in this way in an advert for a fast bard dish trivialised and condoned domestic violence and was socially irresponsible (The George Pub and Grill, 02 August 2017).


In 2007, the ASA upheld complaints that two fashion ads, which appeared in the national press, were irresponsible and offensive because they glamorised violence (Dolce & Gabbana, 10 January 2007). One ad showed two men with knives threatening a third man sitting on a chair while a fourth man was lying on the floor with a wound to his forehead. The other ad featured two men supporting a woman who was holding a knife and had a wound in her chest. The ads generated over 200 complaints, some of which cited a recent knife amnesty as the reason for the ads’ unacceptability. Although the ads were stylised and theatrical, the ASA upheld the complaints that the ads glorified knife-related violence, were socially irresponsible and were offensive.


Marketers should bear in mind that they could be made to pre-vet all posters for two years if they publish an offensive or socially irresponsible poster.




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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