No offence: Why do ads keep getting banned?

No offence: Why do ads keep getting banned?

Deliveroo felt the wrath of a fickle public recently, when its ad depicting farcical vignettes, including astronauts receiving a takeaway in space, was banned for being misleading. Did anyone really believe that its riders would drop sushi to the stratosphere? A pepperoni pizza to prison? Thai food in a tornado?

Clearly not. But the suggestion that Deliveroo’s delivery was comprehensive – that it will deliver food ‘anywhere’ – offended enough people that the ad is no more.

Or consider Go Compare, which the week prior received a barrage of complaints about its post-watershed ad depicting a comical car crash… in a car insurance ad. Not yet banned – the ASA says it’s too early to make a decision – but let’s be honest, it will be gone soon. Then there’s VW’s ad, which only a few weeks before offended one person so much that it was banned under new gender stereotyping rules. There is a pattern, and I could go on.

When did we start taking everything so literally? Creativity cannot be constricted by the confines of reality. Concepts in advertising often present the opposite: a hyper-reality; preposterous situations with ordinary products, parodic renderings of the every day – a nod to the absurd, to the shared banality of life.

Deliveroo’s ad, for example, was not misleading. It was a figurative concept. No doubt suburban viewers were sick of seeing an ad for something they can’t get. That’s fair enough. It must be an annoying reminder. Deliveroo should clearly just cease advertising on linear television altogether. But by that logic, when I see an ad for a Patek Phillipe watch, should I complain when I’m reminded that I can’t afford one?

Complaining is the new black. The ASA received a total of 33,727 in 2018, representing an increase of 24% on the year before. Consumers today are both more exposed to advertising and more empowered to react when they don’t like something. The democratisation of the public sphere through social media has given everyone a soapbox – from Donald Trump to your neighbour’s influencer cat.

The irony of my complaining about people complaining is not lost on me. And my concern is not to negate the merits of the digital revolution. The voiceless have a voice: we stand empowered in the wake of the old days of one-to-many comms. But when every half-baked opinion has a platform and expects to be taken seriously, it presents a challenge to those of us putting work out there.

We live in the age of the 280 character show trial. People seek out offence for a hobby. Brands have never been more accountable. Largely this is a good thing. But elsewhere the bar has been lowered. What was once an angry letter of genuine complaint is now a thoughtless snipe for the passing approval of social media followers; an inflation of hot air, pumping up the filter bubble.

The response from brands is circumspection, over-caution, and a barrage of staid creative; so prosaic as to not offend Janet from Hull’s sensibilities. Creativity or concept – bravery in communication – take a back seat to avoiding enmity.

This year the problem has hit an inflection point. Think of that glob of Ed Sheeran-flavoured shit Heinz squeezed from the bottom of its creative bottle a couple of months ago. Where is the big idea? The celebrity cameo is trite beyond measure, yet more popular than ever in this age of offence. Wary advertisers have flooded our screens with everyone from Robert De Nero to Phillip Schofield to Ant and Dec in the last few months, none of which had merit beyond stardust.

Likewise, booze ads used to be some of the best, but the beer mats have turned. Saying or implying “you might enjoy drinking this” is offensive to non-drinkers, so concept gets replaced with tenuous purpose. Bombay Sapphire released a howler earlier this month, imploring viewers to ‘Stir Creativity’, an ad so cliched and unavailing one is left thirsty for something strong. I suppose it achieved its ends.

Or Diet Coke, which this week baffled the world with its granny-swiping, Tinder-inspired You Do You campaign. It’s at least the fifth major brand to take inspiration from the dating app in the last couple of years. It’s safe territory, humour so pedestrian that it’s not funny. I dread to think how offensive Diet Coke Break, with Etta James’ “I just wanna make love to you” would be to some people today.

At risk of sounding out-of-touch, it is imperative to note that what is offensive hasn’t changed. Having largely rid our airwaves of sexism and racism; of stereotypes and graphic depictions, what we are witnessing is a puritanical quest for what to be offended by next. It’s the the raison d'être of a vocal minority, facilitated by the ASA.

This isn’t going to change – that rubicon has been crossed. So how can brands navigate this (not so) Brave New World?

Naturally, the answer starts with more, not less, creativity. But what guides that creative thinking – how we arrive at creative solutions that are funny, pushbuttons, or shock people without offending loudmouths – must change. And given that management consultancies’ tanks are parked on Adland’s lawn, it is only right that we steal their secrets.

Incorporating risk management, and the notion of the precautionary principle, is how we have adapted to this not-so-Brave New World. With the bar set so low, we weigh up the risk and reward of every creative strategy. We establish what might be offensive, and who might be offended. We use our Bravery Index – a set of biometric tools that is able to accurately measure people’s emotional reactions to audio-visual stimuli in a range of different formats and stages of production – to further test the limits of our creative.

We then ask whether the risk of causing said offence will hinder or help our client’s commercial objectives. Consider as an example the palm oil ad Iceland borrowed from Greenpeace. Did they know that it would get banned? Risk management establishes that news is slow at Christmas and that the free media earned for an agreeable cause would justify the risk of it being taken off the air.

When everything we create is a risk, the response is not to pander to the lowest common denominator. We make ads for our clients’ consumers, not the perpetually offended nor the woke regulators that enable them. If you want to send a curry to space, so be it. No offence. None taken.

Dave Lawrence is planning partner at the creative agency, Brave.

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