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Body shaming and cultural appropriation are Brits’ top reasons for complaining about ads


By Chris Sutcliffe, Senior reporter

June 10, 2022 | 5 min read

Fewer than a half of the British public would choose to report an ad they find offensive, according to new research from YouGov. Only 45% of respondents to a survey said they would register a complaint with the relevant regulator, while 43% insisted they would not.

Man screams down telephone

Religious messaging and images of addiction are also among the most common causes of complaints / Icons8

The proportion of respondents who would complain varies by age. Younger consumers are least likely, although only by a narrow margin. The survey found that, in Britain, younger consumers are as likely to report an ad they find inappropriate (40%) as they are to not report it (40%).

By contrast, millennials and baby boomers are more likely to report an offensive advert (46% and 48% respectively).

YouGov ad complaints breakdown

The findings are likely to accelerate conversations around the extent to which ‘cancel culture’ is a viable concern for brands in the UK. When asked how likely or unlikely they are to boycott a brand they found offensive, a majority of Britons say they are likely to stop buying from that brand (80% each). This greatly contrasted the figures in the US, with only three in ten (29%) of American Gen Z’s likely to boycott a brand.

A recent study from the Chartered Institute of Marketing found that a majority of marketing professionals fear their brand or business being ’cancelled’ or otherwise on the receiving end of a boycott. For that reason, 67% of marketers have shrunk their focus to domestic activities, rather than risking alienating audiences abroad through a lack of social awareness.

Offensive content

What Britons consider to be ‘offensive’ is, of course, subjective. However, YouGov’s research found that there are some topics widely considered to cross the line. The most commonly cited reason for an ad to be considered offensive is when it makes light of personal characteristics, including a person’s weight or culture.

The report reads: “Body shaming is found to be the issue that registers the most negative reactions from consumers when viewing advertisements, with more than half of British consumers (57%) considering those that contain negative or inappropriate messaging about a person’s weight or size to be offensive.

“Cultural appropriation follows as the next most offensive, with half (50%) of British consumers revealing their aversion to advertisers who show cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful or stereotypical way.”

Meanwhile, over a third (37%) of consumers believe that advertising content related to religious customs or festivals can be considered offensive. The report did not break down whether specific religious content was considered offensive – for instance, whether Christmas content would count under that bracket.

Full nudity, in addition to sexually suggestive images and gender stereotypes, were found to be ’distasteful’ (34%) in Britain. Almost a third of respondents also believe that swearing is grounds for complaints (30%), while one in five (20%) said they would be offended by images related to addiction. That presents issues for campaigns that specifically seek to inform the public about issues related to alcohol, gambling etc.

The research demonstrates that the British public is increasingly aware of issues relating to stereotyping, whether of personal characteristics or culture. While brands have concerns about ’cancel culture’, the reality is that the British public is more attuned to social issues around body-shaming and xenophobia and that brands should simply act accordingly.

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