The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has held its annual roll call of the UK’s most complained about ads. Of the top ten, not a single ad was investigated showing a disparity between the rules and the public’s distaste of certain taboos and acts.
The ASA’s bespoke Academy Awards of disliked ads has for the last few years been dominated by Moneysupermarket’s Epic Strut series. That franchise slips into second this year, men in heels and hotpants are marginally less of a hot topic. This year, KFC seizes the day with an ad championing its chickens that made viewers uncomfortable seeing their potential fried meat prancing around a yard to X Gon’ Give It To Ya by DMX.
It is worth noting that despite the public’s outrage, none of the top ten ads were investigated by the watchdog. None breached broadcast rules.
Here are the top ten most complained about ads.
10. Mars, Maltesers – 92 complaints – Not upheld
Maltesers has provoked its way onto the list two years in succession. This time around it featured an ad in which a wheelchair-bound woman described a spasm caused by her condition, viewers initially thought she was discussing a sexual encounter with her boyfriend. Complainants found this an inappropriate topic of conversation despite the ad airing after 9pm.
The ASA said: “We found the women’s conversation to be light-hearted and didn’t think the allusion to the woman’s romantic encounter would cause serious or widespread offence. On the matter of portraying the woman in a wheelchair in this manner, we believed the ad was championing diversity and did not think that it denigrated or degraded those with disabilities.”
Channel 4 gave the brand £1m worth of free ad space due to its light-hearted take on disability. It is part of the brand's diversity pledge.
9. Macmillan Cancer Support - 116 Complaints – Not upheld
Macmillan strived to show the awful reality of living with cancer. At the centre of the ad was a father guiding his daughter through his chemotherapy treatment. In the evocative creative, he vomits in a sink, slumps into a bath, and cries in a car before eventually being comforted by a nurse.
On this the ASA ruled: “Though we understood some of the scenes, particularly the one in which the man vomited, were distressing to some viewers, we believed they served to illustrate the reality of living with cancer… We believed it addressed the serious nature of the illness appropriately.”
8. Telefonica Ltd (O2) - 125 Complaints – Not upheld
These lists have a history of featuring same-sex kisses and LGBT concerns. O2 ran a screen replacement ad in which two men kissed. Complaints called the scene “too sexually explicit”, others said it was scheduled inappropriately at times when children were likely to be watching. Some also felt the portrayal of a same-sex relationship was offensive to their religious beliefs.
The ASA did not uphold any of the complaints: “We noted that the scene in question was brief and did not contain any graphic or overly sexual imagery. We ruled that it did not require a scheduling restriction and the depiction of a gay couple would not cause serious or widespread offence.”
7. DSG Retail Ltd (Currys PC World) - 131 Complaints – Not upheld
Currys ran a humourous ad in which a couple trolls their children. They said they were going to celebrate a traditional Christmas with caroling, roaring fires and long conversations. The children visibly upset at the gadget embargo are calmed down when the joke is revealed. A new TV is revealed to their relief.
Religious complaints dominated. Those aggrieved said it promoted materialism and equated Christmas with watching TV instead of Christianity.
The ASA said: “We thought the ad was light-hearted and was meant to be humorous. We understood the allusions to consumerism might be perceived to be in bad taste by some, but considered it was unlikely to cause serious offence. The ad did not ridicule or denigrate Christians or Christianity, so was unlikely to offend on those grounds.”
6. RB UK Commercial Ltd (V.I.Poo) - 207 Complaints – Not upheld
No one likes that toilet smell, that is why V.I.Poo thought it was on to a winner with a controversial ad touting its new lavatory air freshener. The product's ludicrous take on VIP and the frank discussion about the bodily function was unsavoury to many.
The ASA said: "We ruled that the ad was a light-hearted way of introducing the product and we didn’t consider its reference to the 'devil’s dumplings' likely to break our rules on offence."
5. McDonald’s - 256 Complaints – Not upheld
McDonald's played the grief card. This ad showed a young boy asking probing questions about his dead father. He learned that he had very little in common with his dearly departed partriarch – that is, until it is revealed that they are essentially the two people in the UK that like the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish burger.
The ad was reviled on social media and accused of exploited grief. Dead dadvertising to shift fishy burgers. It was pulled quicker than the fish's journey from sea to burger bun, meaning the ASA did not have the chance to investigate.
The ASA said: "The ad attracted criticism that it was trivialising grief, was likely to cause distress to those who have experienced a close family death and was distasteful to compare an emotive theme to a fast food promotion."
McDonald's issued an apology for the misfired creative. It said it would "review our creative process to ensure this situation never occurs again."
4. Match.com - 293 Complaints – Not upheld
Another gay kiss invoked the ire of the UK's complainers, this time is was a passionate lesbian embrace. It was the Match.com ad's second year on the list, previously occupying the number two spot.
The ASA released some insight into this phenomena.
"We received similar complaints last year, when it was number three on our list, about whether the ad was too sexually explicit for children to see. We ruled then that the ad did not cross the line. Over the two years, the ad has attracted almost 1,200 complaints," said the ASA.
3. Unilever, Dove - 391 Complaints – Not upheld; ads removed
The first and last print ad to feature in the list, Dove irked mums with the text of a breastfeeding ad. While it was far from the most controversial slot put out by the brand this year (see 'Whitewashing'), most objected to the language used. It read: "75% say breastfeeding in public is fine. 25% say put them away. What's your way?"
There was an objection to any member of the public actually having a say on whether a mother does or does not breastfeed her child. The ad was short lived amid a series of gripes being posted to the brand's social media accounts.
The ASA ruled: "Many criticised the language, such as 'put them away', as it might encourage criticism of breastfeeding. Some were also concerned that the ads might encourage neglecting crying babies. After listening to the public, Dove issued an apology and subsequently pulled the ads and amended their website.
2. Moneysupermarket.com - 455 Complaints – Not upheld
Moneysupermarket is no stranger to this list, its Epic Strut never fails to evoke predictable criticism. Some said the sight of men in hot pants and heels was overtly sexual, others went the other way and claimed it was possibly homophobic.
The ASA said: "We thought the character’s movements would generally be seen as dance moves and not in a sexual context. We also thought most viewers would recognise the ad’s intended take on humour. We ruled it was unlikely to condone or encourage harmful discriminatory behaviour. "
1. KFC - 755 Complaints – Not upheld
Winner winner, chicken dinner. KFC takes the top spot as the second fast food chain on the list in trouble for (in a way) evoking a form of grief in viewers. While Filet-O-Fish could be accused of evoking memories of a dead father, it at least did not have the fish swim-dance to an upbeat rap before being inevitably 'filleted'.
The UK public passionately clucked about the brand's use of the dancing chicken, with many much preferring to suffer from a cognitive dissonance when it comes to the source of their meat.
The ASA ruled: "We ruled it was unlikely that the ad would cause distress or serious or widespread offence as there were no explicit references to animal slaughter."
Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA, said: "Tackling misleading ads continues to be the bread and butter of our work, but 2017 again showed that it is ads that have the potential to offend that attract the highest numbers of complaints.
"But multiple complaints don’t necessarily mean that an ad has fallen on the wrong side of the line: we look carefully at the audience, the context and prevailing societal standards informed by public research before we decide.”
The most complained about ad that was banned in 2017 was for a website ehicdirect.org.uk, a commercial company offering a service which checks and submits applications to the NHS European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). There were 84 complaints, mostly about how it implied it was the official website for these applications.
The volume of complaints was actually down by 1.9% between 2017 and 2016.